August 30, 2005

When starting out in business in India, it's customary to donate part of your earnings to the appropriate deity. "Some people give a piece of equity in their company to the god," relates Bob Tramontano, vice president of engineering and product management, NCR (Dayton, Ohio). "As their equity grows, so does yours."

With that in mind, ICICI Bank (Mumbai, $38 billion in assets) allows its customers to tithe at some of its NCR ATMs. "It's an easy way for the temples to capture donations from their followers without them having to go all the way to the temple," says Tramontano.

Such initiatives demonstrate how product localization can help banks and their suppliers to extend the reach of financial services to the broader population outside of the world's largest cities. Behind all of the excitement about the market potential of India and China, there's a realization that the technologies have to work not only in the big cities, but also in the countryside and the farming communities. "If you can get that population comfortable with using an ATM, that's a huge opportunity."

NCR, which has operated its own manufacturing facility in India's Pondicherry region for several years, has designed its "ASAN" ATMs specifically for India, addressing the potential barriers to adoption by the typical consumer. "NCR spent a lot of time developing an ATM for the Indian market for geographically dispersed locations," says Tramontano.

One challenge in the hinterlands compared to the big cities is that the size of the average transaction tends to be rather small. "When you get into the major cities, you're talking about someone who's going to take out a lot of small bills," notes Tramontano. "But in the geographically dispersed areas, you find that the wages are lower -- where someone's taking out may be only the equivalent of two to three dollars, and that may last them a week."

Environmental factors also have an impact. "India is a beautiful place, but it also lacks some of the infrastructure in certain areas," observes Tramontano.

Thus, the designers of the ASAN ATM weren't able to assume that the machine would operate in a regulated, air-conditioned environment within a bank branch. "In smaller towns, potentially you'd have your machines in a local store, which could be a quasi-open-air store," says Tramontano. "During certain parts of the season, it could be very wet or very dry."

"Very wet" is an understatement. Part of the core requirement of an ATM network in India is the ability to keep going during monsoon season. While the machines themselves may not be able to handle the fury of a monsoon, the network itself can maintain functionality despite the worst weather. "With the monsoons, we had no disruption of service," says Tramontano. "That's a testament to our ability to reroute the transactions."

"Maybe a machine goes underwater, but that doesn't affect any other machines that are on the network," adds Tramontano. "We didn't have outages in the central hub."

Demo of "Anytime Blessing"

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