Mark Bridge writes:
Ring-back tones offer consumers yet another way to customise their mobile phone service. Yet despite this – and the revenue opportunities they provide – many mobile network operators don’t offer them.
Recently I spoke to Florent Stroppa, General Manager Europe for value-added service specialist OnMobile, to find out why the UK doesn’t really seem to be bothered about ring-back tones… and whether the next-generation of ring-back services will change this.
Florent started by explaining that ringtones and ring-back tones are essentially different sides of the same coin.
“When someone calls you, what you hear is a ringtone. Usually the ringtone is stored on your mobile and the end-user chooses which ringtones he wants to hear when he receives the call. When you are calling someone, you hear a ring-back tone. It’s pretty boring in most parts of the world – and this sound comes from the telephone network. In many countries, operators have replaced it with music. So it’s called ring-back music, in India it’s also called caller tunes, and provides a great means of expression for end-users.”
OnMobile itself manages 72 million subscribers on behalf of mobile operators. But why is the service so popular in some countries and not in others?
“We have to understand in many parts of the world, there are not so many ways to communicate and express yourself. Facebook is not as popular just because you don’t have access to data. With a ring-back tone, you don’t need anything. You just need a phone number, you just need a phone. Even if you don’t have data on your phone you can use the service.”
Even though mobile connectivity is more advanced in the UK than in some other countries, providing ring-back tones would still offer network operators a revenue opportunity. I asked Florent why he thought the UK hadn’t seen much adoption of the service.
“Clearly the cultural aspect could be a reason. There was probably a lack of focus from operators, particularly in the UK. The service was getting really popular in emerging markets; at the same time you had the launch of apps and new platforms such as iPhone in the UK. The focus of operators was not really on value-added services at the time, it was more growing smartphones and growing data. It’s a missed opportunity.”
However all this could be about to change.
According to Florent, the ring-back tone market is about to be transformed by the convergence of three things:
- Voice over LTE (VoLTE), offering higher audio quality
- The rise of smartphones
- Simple RBT (ring-back tone) APIs, making it easy to use ring-back tones for more than just music.
“Initially the quality of the audio was quite poor in some cases – for instance, in the UK – so maybe operators were not inclined to provide something with poor audio quality. This problem will basically be solved with VoLTE.”
“Previously, people who were calling would hear the same music again and again. It was very difficult to switch. Now with smartphones you can change it very often. It’s just one click away. More importantly, you can use the audio channel to transfer information about you. When you have an app integrated with the calendar, a voice could say ‘Florent is currently busy but will be available in 20 minutes’. Instead of music you could have information which is synchronised with your life.”
“The intelligence remains in the network but it is thanks to the app that you provide relevant context and data to the network in real time. Obviously, if you are away or your phone is not on, the network can still [respond] on your behalf.”
Other opportunities include using a ring-back tone to provide company information before a call is answered… or introducing advertising to subsidise a mobile phone tariff. As with conventional UK phone calls, the caller wouldn’t pay until the call was answered.
“There is always a point where the call has to be answered. Obviously the ring-back tone cannot last forever. But it’s a much more acceptable way of hearing things because you’re not paying for the ring-back tone, you’re just paying for the call.”
In summary, ring-back tones may have been overlooked in the past – but today they’re showing more potential than ever before.
“Here we have an asset which is underused. We can consider the ring-back tone as airtime which can be used for something else. All the ingredients to transform it are present.”