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Custom ringback tones: Coming to your next contract mobe?

Ditch the old 'brrr brrr' - and pay for an alternative sound

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Ringback tones, which replace the ringing tone one hears while waiting for a phonecall to be connected, are about to explode back into fashion, if vendor OnMobile is to be believed.

Technically speaking, ringback tones (RBTs) are trivial to implement. The "brrr brrr" (or "brrrrrrr" in some countries) one hears while waiting for a call to be answered is generated from a recording. It used to be a reflection of the ringing handset but these days an operator can replace that sound with anything they like.

Or anything the customer would like, which is the point of commercialising RBTs. Let the customer select the tone and charge them for the privilege. RBTs work on any handset, and personalise the experience just like a handset ringtone – only they're under the complete control of the network operator, making it remarkable we're not having RBTs pushed into our faces daily.

Custom RBTs never really took off in the UK. Only T-Mobile gave them any credence but never bothered to promote them much. Yet in Brazil and Mexico, RBTs are a significant source of revenue for network operators. OnMobile is convinced a perfect storm is looming to blow the familiar "brrr brrr" tones away forever.

OnMobile would say that, of course, as a market leader with services to sell, but the failure of custom RBTs outside South America is unfathomable. With network operators scrabbling to find new sources of revenue we'll likely see operators launching RBT services. OnMobile reckons they'll do a lot more than just play music.

T-Mobile's lacklustre service was subscription based, allowing the user to change tones as the wished. Early adopters did, despite the requirement to visit the T-Mobile website each time they changed the music to suit their mood, with T-Mobile overlaying the familiar "brrr brrr" on top just to make sure no-one thought they'd called Dial-a-Disc by accident.

OnMobile reckons that the introduction of voice over LTE (VoLTE) will improve the quality significantly, while smartphones will let users alter their tone as often as they change their mood. It also hopes the introduction of new services will drive RBTs into the mainstream.

That period while one waits for an answer is, according to OnMobile, a lost opportunity for companies and brands to fill. Companies could apply their own audio branding to contract phones, while bands could deliver new singles to subscribers. One's ringback tone could be linked to a calendar to indicate if one were in a meeting, or roaming internationally (and thus having to pay for the received call); all options which are technically simple if operators decide to implement them.

In the UK we're quite wedded to our "brrr brrr" indicator – international calls already make us nervous with their long, singular, ringing tone – but the next generation of RBTs are likely to find success in some markets. If someone can come up with a replacement then perhaps they'll take off here in Blighty too. ®

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