Dial tone goes for a song?

25 Nov 2004

Don’t be alarmed the next time you call a friend and are greeted by music instead of a dial tone. It’s not a crossed line or a dropped call, it’s a ringback tone, coming soon to a mobile phone near you.

Ringback tones are now widely in use across Europe and are also available in the US market, having debuted in Korea almost two years ago. According to John Fallon, sales and marketing director with Alatto, a mobile technology provider based in Dublin, revenues for ringbacks this year exceed those of multimedia messaging. “It has been the most significant new service on the network this year,” he said. FK Telecom of Korea, the first operator to introduce the service, now earns US$100m of its revenue from ringback tones.

“It plugs into the need for personalisation,” explained Fallon. Unlike ringtones, which are downloaded to the user’s phone and heard only when the handset owner receives a call, ringbacks can be heard by anyone who calls a subscriber’s number. The tone is also customisable, so that friends and family may hear a particular song but business callers are greeted by a different tune or even simply the standard dialling tone. The choice of song can also vary according to the time of the day or can even be based on a random playlist.

Users can select a song, a joke, funny noises or even a full orchestra according to their preferences. Because ringback tones are not downloaded – they are managed by the mobile operator – using them is not dependent on owning a particular handset. This also gets around the problem of being able to play monophonic tones or music-only tunes with no vocals according to the quality of phone that the subscriber uses.

The possibilities are endless: imagine being greeted by Hanging On The Telephone by Blondie or Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called To Say…. Appropriately, Alatto’s demo of the service features the Beatles’ Hello Goodbye.

Siliconrepublic.com understands that next year at least one Irish operator will roll out the service. All three are believed to have evaluated it. The service would appear to promise a significant new revenue stream and encouragingly, it’s popular; Vodafone’s Italian arm chalked up 550,000 subscribers in the first two months. In the Czech Republic over a similar period the service reached 5pc penetration.

Because of the novelty factor, what is likely to happen is that callers to mobiles with a ringback will hear the dial tone alongside the song. Then, over time the volume of the song is likely to increase compared with the dial tone. Depending on regulatory permission, the traditional ringing tone could be removed altogether in future. “We all like to be entertained, now there’s very little time we’re not being entertained,” said Fallon.

By Gordon Smith