The People's Phone

Back in the good old days of the Cold War, in some of Eastern Bloc countries once could easily find national brands of necessities created by and for working people as a show of pride and self-sufficiency. The People's Vodka, the People's Car, etc. Then as the Cold War ended and globalization took its place, we found ourselves in the era of the niche product, created by and for the Long Tail to satisfy a spectrum of human needs (mainly western and northern), which eventually became the products "everyone aspires to," whether northern or southern, western or eastern.

Now, we are seeing the pendulum begind to swing the other way again, with economic globalism's ill effects driving a renewed interest in the national product. Just this week, the hottest name in economic nationalism, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, became the spokesmodel for the unusually named "El Vergatario," a super-low cost (~$14) mobile phone "for the people". Produced by a joint Chinese-Venezeulan company, Vetelca, the phone's development has been partly funded by Chinese tech company ZTE, which is also supplying components. To meet the low price point, the phone has no MP3 player, camera or radio.

Why here, why now? Many reasons come to mind, not least of which is the immediate desire by Chavez to thumb his nose at the Capitalist North, rejecting the expensive feature-phones that scream "bourgeoisie," in favor of a low-cost, accessible device that suits the Venezuelan Everyman. Also, as it has done across the world in the last decade, China sees an opportunity to sells its infrastructure and technology into a growth market that may not be getting the attention it wants from elsewhere, cultivating some loyalty in return.

More importantly, though is the longer-term significance of this development. Mobile phone development costs have been driven so low that they no longer can be produced cheaply and simply for markets that want them that way. Add to this the increasingly commoditized nature of running a wireless network, and we may start to see "rebel telcos" operating outside the normal sphere of the global telecommunications brotherhood.