Ringing Back With More Noise
By Carlo Longino, Tue Sep 09 12:30:00 GMT 2003

As if polyphonic ringtones weren't enough, carriers are now letting users customize the tones people calling them hear.

Personalized ringtones have arguably been the biggest mobile success story. What started off as a novelty for teens has become nothing short of a phenomenon, with even the stodgiest mobile users downloading tones to make their handset that much cooler.

But even as polyphonic ringtones make those sounds a little more realistic and a little less robotic, some carriers want to introduce even more music into the equation.

"Ringback tones" have become a hit in South Korea and are being introduced in other Asian countries. They let users replace the typical "ring" or busy sounds callers hear when they dial a users number - for instance, instead of hearing a typical "ring ring" before someone picks up their phone, a caller might hear the latest pop hit or an old Frank Sinatra tune. Or they might hear a resurrection of the "No-bo-dy's home, no-bo-dy's home" tune set to Beethoven's Fifth that in some quarters made a great answering machine message in the '80s.

More than a third of SK Telecom's 16 million subscribers have signed up for the service, paying an average of more than USD 2 per month for it, and South Korea's two other carriers were forced to offer competing services in the wake of SK's success. One estimate puts the total spent in the country on ringback tones in 2002 at about USD 90 million, with the figure expected to increase sharply this year.

In South Korea, users pay a monthly fee of a little less than a dollar, then pay between USD 1 and 2 for each song they purchase. They can then customize how the songs are used, playing different ones for different callers or changing depending on the time of day, all over the Internet on their phone or PC or via an interactive voice menu. Some tones also incorporate a traditional ringing sound so callers don't think they've been put on hold (a real problem if users choose a Celine Dion or Chicago tune), and other services will even keep playing the song in the background after a call is answered. Some services also let users record their own greetings, which would seem to be the perfect choice for ex-boyfriends and girlfriends, telemarketers, or other annoying callers.

And while customers must have certain handsets to download and play ringtones, and advanced ones to take advantage of polyphonic offerings, the ringback tones reside in the network, so callers from any type of phone - mobile or fixed-line - can hear them. Conceivably, even wireline carriers could offer the service to their customers should they purchase the proper equipment from vendors like NMS Communications Comverse, or Lucent.

Carriers have high hopes for the service based on its success in South Korea. Similar services have already launched in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and China, and NMS says it expects US carriers to roll out ringback tones in time for the Christmas season, with Europe by early 2004.

The hope is that offering users, initially teens, further customization of their mobile devices will continue to be a success. After all, kids around the globe have already swallowed ringtones, faceplates, screensavers and carrier logos, flashing keypads and antennas, and myriad other add-ons to personalize their handsets. Choosing a ringtone to express yourself or make some statement only works when other people are around; ringback tones leverage that popularity and extend it so users make that statement to everyone who calls their mobile.

Carriers also see the services as a perfect breeding ground for viral marketing. Since the tones are played to everyone that calls the number, regardless of their own carrier or if they're on a mobile or land line, ringback tones can quickly become a strong service differentiator. The novelty of the service will undoubtedly lead a caller to ask "What was that?" allowing the first carrier in a market to offer the service a tremendous jump on its competitors.
But what remains to be seen is if the service will gain wider acceptance beyond the youth market. Will adults, who are slowly taking to ringtones, find the humor or novelty in ringback tones? Perhaps allowing personally recorded greetings and offering features that play different tones for different users will position the service as much as a productivity tool than as one for entertainment. Professionals could use the service to deal with calls in a way similar to how Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes can filter and sort e-mails, or send out-of-office notices. Imagine setting your coworkers' numbers to hear "I'm currently on vacation. Please call back in two weeks," or something similar. Companies could also use the service as a marketing tool, offering their own ringback tones featuring advertising jingles or messages from celebrities, just as some brands now give away ringtones.

There is certainly potential for ringback tones to gain widespread market traction, but their success does remain to be seen. While it would seem natural for the youth market to pick up on the technology, will it interest older users? Or will it be a case of having to separate the signal from the noise?