A ringback tone is what people dialing a telephone number hear between the time they finish entering the digits and when the call is answered. Telephone service providers worldwide all use the same, innocuous "ring, ring" sound to cover what would normally be silence.
Now, a small number of Asian cell phone service providers are offering to personalize ringback tones. So instead of ordinary ringing, subscribers can choose a Shania Twain song, for example, or even a recorded personal greeting for their callers to hear.
"Ringback tones add a new dimension of personalization to the mobile communication experience," said Franky Lai, chairman of WiseSpot, one of a growing number of companies that supply the technology.
Some carriers have added a muffled "ring, ring" sound to the track that's playing as a subtle reminder of what's going on. Replacing the familiar sound with a Paul McCartney song, for instance, could fool dialers into thinking they've been put on hold.
Late last year, Korean carrier SK Telekom began offering subscribers top 40 songs to replace the conventional ring. Two Chinese carriers introduced similar services last week. SK Telecom had signed up about five million subscribers for ringback tone services at the end of 2002, with average spending per user of about $1.50 a month.
The technology is going through the same metamorphosis as its cousin, the cell phone ring tone, which has been moving from conventional chirps to snippets of songs. Sales of ring tones have generated revenue for cell phone carriers in Asia and Europe, and U.S. sales of ring tones are beginning to pick up.
Suppliers of ringback tones say that similar to ring tones the technology gives carriers a way to differentiate themselves and bring in new sources of revenue.
A spokesman for NMS Communications, which is powering SK Telekom's ringback tone service, said the company expects U.S. carriers to begin offering their own playlists to choose from by Christmas this year. He added that NMS and competitor Comverse Technology are in a tug-of-war to sell U.S. carriers the equipment they need for their networks, plus the music itself.