New Delhi: Ten minutes. That’s what it took for a new registrant to a voice chatting service on mobile phones to get a call from a ‘buddy’.
“Dost toh hain, par ladkiyan nahin hain (I have friends but none of them girls),” said the caller, Amit, striking a conversation with a perfect stranger, a Mint reporter, who had registered on Bharti Airtel Ltd’s ‘VoiceChat’ service.
The Rs3 a minute charge for the call, nearly thrice of the average cost of a voice call in India, the world’s fastest growing market for mobile phone services, didn’t seem to bother Amit, who said he was a university student in Dehradun. “Living on campus, I get bored. So, sometimes I talk (on VoiceChat),” he said in Hindi.
Unlike the West, where social networking and dating websites are the preferred destinations for lonely hearts, in India, which counts just two computers for every 100 people, the young—and the old—are using a less rare alternative: mobile phone dating.
This is how it works. Users register for the service and are assigned a five-digit code that also acts as their phone number, thus hiding their real phone number. They can then dial a three-digit number and listen to other people describing themselves and try to reach them by dialing their code. Users are not obliged to answer the calls.
“We were really surprised by the uptake for the service, and it has beaten all our expectations,” said Saket Agarwal, COO, Cellebrum.com Pvt. Ltd, a solution provider of voice-based mobile social networking service in the country.
Agarwal, whose firm owns the rights to the service and the database, works in partnership with leading phone firms such as, Reliance Communications Ltd (RCL), Hutchison Essar Ltd, Idea Cellular Ltd, Reliance Telecom Ltd, and Spice Telecom Ltd, and claims to have active subscriptions of up to 300,000 people spread across 17 out of the 22 telecom licence areas in India.
While RCL launched voice-based profiles and anonymous chatting services 10 months ago, others such as Bharti Airtel, Hutchison Essar and Idea started rolling out similar services earlier this year. The services are currently restricted to select circles, except in the case of Idea and RCL. While Cellebrum has the largest market share, limited trials using other software has attracted an estimated 100,000 users, taking the total to about 400,000 users. Eventually, Agarwal sees a potential for seven million customers. “In the circles where we introduced it 10 months ago, we saw a sudden increase in the uptake. But afterwards, subscriptions stabilized at around 4% of the total subscriber base,” he said. With an average revenue of around Rs100 a customer a month, the current addressable market is worth around a monthly Rs70 crore, or about 1% of the annual telecom revenue. The user uptake for the dating service has been sans the high-decibel advertising that phone operators are known for; most services were “soft-launched.”
“I got an SMS from my service provider about three months ago, saying if you want to make friends, call on 696,” said Prashant Agarwal, a college student and a pre-paid user from New Delhi. “It said my mobile number will not be revealed and I can talk to other users who have recorded their profiles.”
A second Mint reporter, this time a male, found no dearth of ‘buddies’ profiled in the service. Unlike online chatting and match-making websites, the users seemed to cover all demographic segments.
“I am looking a friend. I am caring and good friend,” was how Divyashi from Kolkata described herself. There were a fair share of women registered on the service by Bharti Airtel, but not one of them picked up this reporter’s call.
Despite low-key marketing, companies seem happy to see the service spread. “We do not have enough computers in India and we have always said that for a lot of people, the only computer that many of our customers will see will be the mobile phone,” said Krishna Durbha, the marketing and sales head at RCL.
“There are two advantages to having this service in voice as against SMS or text. One is that very few people in India know how to type out a text message or use the Internet,” said Harit Nagpal, head of marketing at Hutchison Essar. “And the second is that unlike the Internet or SMS, it is difficult for a 60-year-old man to pass off as an 18-year-old college girl.”
However, some annoyances such as the cost of the service appear to bother consumers. Wary of people using the service to make cheap long-distance calls, operators are charging Rs3 per minute on most networks for the service. Users also complain that search results are not confined to online users, which results in several dialing attempts ending up against ‘user not online’ messages.
Rajan Gupta, who described himself as a “well-settled” 42-year-old businessman from Noida on his profile, said: “Only about 30% to 40% of the users in the search results are online, and even when they are, you are still charged for ringing them up, whether they pick up or not. The call charges should be same as normal charges since we are paying a rental to use the service.”
Amit Agrawal, a technology blogger from Agra, also thought that price was going to be the key factor for the success of the service. “It will definitely pick up if operators lower the tariffs, but they will have to be vigilant against any misuse, and the bad publicity that such instances bring,” he said.
Priyanka Mehra contributed to this story.