Hyundai Mobile enters U.S. smartphone fray with distribution through GCI, Viaero and iWireless

NASHVILLE -- A well-known South Korean brand is making its way back into phones. After enjoying some success in South America, Hyundai Mobile is now working in the U.S. smartphone market with a handful of sub-$200 Android smartphones the company is distributing online and through smaller, rural carriers including GCI, Viaero Wireless and iWireless.

"Every month we're selling more and more phones" in the United States and elsewhere, said Marcelo Da Silva, senior channel sales director for Hyundai Mobile, in an interview here on the sidelines of the Mobile Carriers Show. The trade event is a product of the Competitive Carriers Associations, which represents Sprint, T-Mobile and the nation's smaller and rural carriers. Da Silva declined to provide specific sales figures for Hyundai Mobile, but said the company's sales are growing.

Distributed by Vitel Mobile and manufactured in China by Hyundai-approved suppliers, Hyundai Mobile is the latest smartphone gambit by Hyundai, the South Korean manufacturing conglomerate best known in the U.S. market for its automobiles. Hyundai has attempted to break into the mobile phone market several times during the past decade or so, but with little success.

For its latest effort in the mobile phone space, Da Silva said Hyundai targeted the South American market starting in 2014 with low-cost Android smartphones featuring dual-SIM capabilities. He said the company has found success by offering mid-grade devices that can run two SIM cards at once -- a feature popular in countries across the world where users typically retain one SIM card for local calls and another for international calls.

In December, Da Silva said Hyundai Mobile decided to expand its sales into the U.S. market, and has so far racked up distribution deals with smaller, rural carriers like GCI, Viaero Wireless and iWireless. He said Hyundai can tailor the stock Android software on its phones to carrier tastes by installing the carrier's logo on the phones' startup screen, for example.

Hyundai isn't alone in targeting the lower end of the U.S. smartphone market. Companies like Alcatel, Blu and Freetel are also selling inexpensive Android smartphones to Americans with the notion that there's space in the market below expensive offerings like Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy S7. But Da Silva said Hyundai has a leg up on the competition thanks to the household-name status of its brand and its related promise of reliable support and service.

"It's a brand recognition that other brands can't bring in," said Ernesto Piedra, VP of Vitel Mobile.

Da Silva said Hyundai currently sells GSM and LTE Android smartphones ranging from $50 to $200. Such phones generally appeal to rural operators, he said, because those carriers are in some cases able to mark up the price of the phones and thereby make a slight profit on the sale of Hyundai devices. He also said Hyundai is enjoying increased sales of unlocked devices.

Da Silva said Hyundai may eventually sell its phones to larger carriers like AT&T and Verizon, but "we have to walk before we can run."

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