Cellphone industry's best customers speak Spanish

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Carolin E. has no Social Security number, little financial security, and, a few months from now, no place to call home. Credit card companies and banks would turn her down.

As an illegal immigrant, she must live without a lot of things. But there's one thing she won't live without: her cellphone. Indeed, when it comes to mobile phones, millions of Latinos in America like Carolin are among the industry's best customers.

Hispanics are outpacing others in navigating the newest horizons of the wireless world. They're placing greater importance on taking pictures with their phones and sending text messages far and wide, according to market research companies. They are more likely to have unplugged their land lines altogether. And compared with the general market, they shell out 10 percent more money for their wireless bills, according to some estimates.

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Carolin represents both the pragmatics and cultural nuances that are making her demographic so coveted.

Without credit, and with a busy schedule and a home base that is constantly changing, she finds a land line impractical. Yet in a new place with no family, as part of a culture where family is central, having a phone is her lifeline.

On a recent morning waiting for a city bus, Carolin talked with her 8-year-old son, who lives in Guatemala. She smiles as she holds up an image of him - smiling back at her - set as her cellphone "wallpaper," the display on her phone's screen. "My phone is indispensable."

Telecommunications companies have taken note, rushing to capture the market of 40 million Hispanics in the US, from new immigrants to affluent Latin Americans who have been in the US for decades. The prepaid phone market has exploded, which draws those unable or unwilling to sign a contract.

Companies such as Cingular Wireless are offering competitive rates abroad, and targeting niche audiences with Spanish-language games and news or salsa ring tones.

"Communication is extremely important to this particular group of individuals, who are coming from all parts of the world," says Alisa Joseph, vice president of advertiser marketing services of Scarborough Research, in New York. Her firm found that Hispanics pay an average of $67 a month for cellphone bills, compared with $60 for the general population.

"A wireless phone is an ideal mechanism for families to keep in touch with one another ... and wireless companies are morphing themselves to meet these needs," she adds.

This week, Movida, a pay-as-you-go service targeted specifically at Hispanics that launched in April, will offer free content for the remainder of the year, including developments on telenovelas, soccer scores, and celebrity gossip. Its motto: "For English, press 2."

Cingular Wireless uses Latino soccer and baseball players as spokespeople in various Hispanic regions across the country. Chief operating officer Ralph de la Vega says that with many Hispanic executives, including himself, the company understands that the Hispanic community in the US is not monolithic.

The company is making some stores more Hispanic-friendly, by using Spanish signs and a fully bilingual staff. "When people who are Hispanic walk into the store, they feel at home," says Mr. de la Vega. "It is a very fast-growing market; we can't just sit on our laurels."

Hispanics are more likely than other customers to run up expensive monthly bills, including in the more-than-$150-per-month category. Data from Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., showed that Hispanics - along with African-Americans - rate the more-advanced cellphone features, such as photography or connectivity to PCs and PDAs, as more important than do whites. The white population was also less likely to abandon local phone lines.

Along the main street running through Chelsea, Mass., a largely Hispanic neighborhood near Boston, storefront windows are plastered with advertisements for prepaid cellular services.

At Casa Ortiz, a party shop that specializes in baptisms and has piñatas hanging from the ceiling, owner Ortiz Vega points to a new prepaid phone service he recently began to sell. He puts his hand to his ear, mimicking the cliché that Latinos are a loquacious bunch.

But beneath the truism lies a powerful force for many Latinos: family. And with so many of them - particularly new arrivals - working multiple jobs, communication had been limited.

"They had to wait for their coffee break or lunch to see how their family was," says Mr. Vega, who is from Puerto Rico. "Now we are more united."

Before she got a cellphone three months ago, Carolin could reach her family intermittently, and they could hardly ever reach her. Because she has no legal papers, a friend signed her up for service under his name, and she pays him $50 in cash each month.

That is a lot of money for Carolin, who is saving the income she earns working in a tortilla chip factory to buy a home for her and her son in Guatemala. But she says her phone is a necessity, not a luxury. "It changed my life."

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