Mundawar, Rajasthan: Camel-drawn carts, tractors and brightly clad women carrying shallow bowls of fuel and food on their heads usually dominate traffic in this northern Indian village.
But on Friday evening, Mundawar played host to a jarring new visitor: Nokia’s travelling mobile phone van. Hundreds of spectators, most men and boys between the ages of 15 and 50, gathered outside or squeezed into the van, hoping to win free merchandise like a Nokia-branded hat.
The Nokia van may be an anomaly but it is just the latest sign of the communication blitz about to overtake rural India.
Mobile phone usage is rising faster in India than anywhere else in the world, with some six million customers added every month. Large cities and many medium-sized towns are already blanketed with retail outlets, and competition among manufacturers and carriers is fierce.
Rural India has become the next frontier for the industry’s biggest players. About 70% of India’s 1.1 billion population, 770 million people, live in villages and rural areas.
Nokia has sent two dozen vans staffed with sales representatives on continuous six-month treks through the countryside. The sales reps don’t take orders and they don’t sell phones; instead, their task is to explain why anyone in a small farming community would want a mobile phone in the first place, and a Nokia in particular.
”The object is to establish the concept of phones, and the need for phones,” said Suresh Sundaram, Nokia’s national retail marketing manager in India, who was in Mundawar on Friday with the van.
The vehicle resembles the trucks that carry carnival games to country fairs, but with cellphones behind glass instead of balloons and darts. When it rolls into a small village, it creates a circus-like spectacle, starting with a skit about why mobile phones are necessary. Then the van’s canopies unfurl as Bollywood music blasts from the speakers.
Television advertising seems to have already done some of the groundwork; many of the villagers visiting the van on Friday were quick to name their favorite model of Nokia mobile phone, even if they didn’t actually own one. The features they praised weren’t color graphics, the latest cameras or texting speed, though.
”Nokia is better because the batteries have a longer life,” said Rajaran Yadav, who carried a Nokia 2030 model in his front shirt pocket on a strap.
Lalid Kishore, 36, said he was shopping for his sixth phone in two years, after having problems with some and trading in others for new features. Kishore said he wasn’t in the market for the newest camera phone, though, because the camera would weaken the battery.
Other visitors to Nokia’s van cited the built-in FM radio as an important feature. Radio reception, which comes from towers in New Delhi, is spotty; most people take their phones to the rooftop when they want to listen to the radio.
Phone manufacturers have begun introducing new products that will be targeted at rural markets. On Thursday, Reliance, the Indian mobile phone service provider, said it would sell a Chinese-made phone that would retail for Rs777, or $19. Nokia also unveiled seven new models last week targeted at emerging markets to be priced at $45 to $120. In November, Motorola introduced the ultra-low-cost Motofone in India, costing about $40.
Despite the new products’ emphasis on price, early indications are that it isn’t the most important criterion. In Mundawar, a district that has a population of 10,000, about 80 new Nokia mobile phones a month are sold through four independent retail outlets, Sundaram said. This doesn’t take into account a strong second-hand market.
”The reality of the Indian market is that people actually generally pay more like $50 to $60” for their phones, said Carolina Milanesi, research director at Gartner’s mobile device group. Nokia’s new 2650, unveiled last week, has a ”nice design and should do well” in India, she said.
While fields dominate the landscape here, cellular connections are not a problem. ”We can’t catch up to the rate that towers are set up,” Sundaram said.