India has more cell phones than any other country except for China. However, the country has few iPhones, due to the high price relative to Nokia handsets, which have captured the small but growing smartphone market in the world's second largest country. However, finally - nine months after the device's worldwide launch - the iPhone 3GS will be available in India through the country's largest wireless carrier, Bharti Airtel
Apple has been slow to make deals in India, where cutthroat competition between carriers is common and profits are cut to the bone, leaving very little room for the types of arrangements Apple favors. The iPhone came to India only in August 2008 when a deal with Airtel finally made the iPhone 3G available to Indian consumers. But the lack of carrier subsidy for the device keeping prices high and the absence of a nationwide 3G data network (even EDGE coverage is spotty) have hampered sales. Apple eventually added a second carrier, Vodafone, but that carrier charges extra for data usage, making the iPhone even less of an attractive option for their customers. Also, iPhone users on either Airtel or Vodafone can't use Visual Voicemail on their phones, and iTunes is not available for music downloads, only apps.
Airtel announced on Friday
that it had made a deal with Apple to sell the iPhone 3GS in India at some point “in the coming months," without elaborating. According to the Airtel website, the 8GB iPhone 3G will still be available, with 16GB and 32GB variants of the iPhone 3GS, going on sale at the carrier's retail stores only.
The iPhone 3GS will be sold without a contract, but will be baseband-locked to Airtel’s network, so existing iPhone 3G users can just swap their Airtel SIM into the new device but new buyers must buy an Airtel service plan to go with their phone. Pricing has not been announced, but the 8GB 3G model currently sells for over 30,000 rupees or greater than $700 US, while 16GB iPhones cost Rs36,000. Unlocked phones are available on the grey market for as little as Rs20,000.
The only 3G network operators in India are the government-owned BSNL and MTNL carriers. The government was supposed to hold auctions for 3G spectrum licenses a number of times in the past couple of years but they have repeatedly been delayed for various reasons. Currently scheduled for April, the auction will award licenses to carriers, taking effect in September, to operate 3G networks throughout India. Both Airtel and Vodafone have applied for licenses.