Idea! Sometimes introduction of a few pieces of detail makes you look at something you know – in a completely new way! Last month’s MoMo session changed the way I saw the Voice-based VAS opportunity.

The April event of Mobile Monday Mumbai was on the topic “Voice-based VAS”, in which we learnt how to create and run a voice-based content portal for mobile phones.

Voice portals are the equivalent of Web portals, giving access to content and information through the voice channel on a mobile phone or landline.

Some Voice-portals runs by Operators and Media companies are:

  • 543212 of Airtel
  • 56789 of Vodafone
  • 51234 of Reliance
  • 55456 of Idea
  • 5057827 of Star TV
  • 5052525 of Sony TV
  • 5056882 of MTV
  • 5057272 of Dainik Jagran
  • 5056776 of Manorama Online
  • 5055454 of Big FM

Website = Voicesite

One does not need VC funding to start a website today. Domain names and hosting are cheap, while designing and programming can be arranged in a bootstrap budget.

The economics of websites and Web 2.0 allowed proliferation of startups and encouraged innovation because it took little for a startup with an idea to do a beta launch, gather feedback from community and then invest in scale and product enhancements.

The lightbulb that got activated in my head was that – just like websites, Voicesite is “startup’s play”.

The VoiceSite – ApniAwaz 02218181818

Lets imagine a VoiceSite called ApniAwaz available on the number 02218181818.

Just like a radio channel has a brand name and frequency, a voicesite too has a brand name (ApniAwaz) and access number (02218181818).

So if a user comes to know of the voicesite, he will dial the number from his mobile/phone and listen to the content of his choice available on this voicesite.

So what does it take to start such a service.

  • E1 line from a telecom service provider
  • Asterisk – application box
  • Content

The E1 line will allow 32 simultaneous incoming calls on a number. This E1 line will be connected to an Asterisk box which will provide a IVRS-based menu that can be programmed to serve content from the content server/space.

So what does it cost to start such a service.

  • E1 line will cost around Rs 65,000 to acquire and roughly about Rs 8,000 per month to operate inbound calling
  • Low-end server to host Asterisk and content should cost around Rs 35,000
  • If you are a techie you can setup and program Asterisk
  • Assuming audio content is available and IPR owned

Here is a diagram explaining the broad flow.
VoiceSite Flow

Apache = Asterisk

LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) played a crucial role in bringing down the cost of acquisition and operation of web servers. It brought the cost of websites within the reach of startups.

Without getting into the technical details, it would not be incorrect to say that the open source PBX & telephony engine Asterisk is to VoiceSites what the LAMP platform, (Apache in particular) was to websites.

Why the time for VoiceSites is now

Telephones have been around for more than a century. But the explosion of voice-based VAS and voice-portals happened only in the last 5 years or so. Why did it take that long for voice-based content services to take-off in India?

Some reasons that come to mind are to do with the readiness of the ecosystem and coming together of its entities.

  • There was no critical mass i.e. it wasn’t a sizable market before 2002.
  • Making STD or local calls was expensive for the user.
  • Billing systems of telcos were not advanced enough to charge for non-voice calling items.
  • Penetration of other payment instruments like credit/cash cards was low.

Three important hurdles have been removed from the growth path of Voicesites.

Potential market size as of May 2008 is around 275 million.

Open source technology like Asterisk makes it feasible for startups to launch innovative voice-based services. Therefore, lots of voicesites will get launched and the consumer will benefit from a choice of services at a competitive price.

Also, very recently most operators dropped national calling (STD) rates to Re 1. It means that by taking an E1 line from one telco, the service goes national. Users will access 02218181818 from anywhere in India and will only pay Re 1 per minute as call charges.

Business models

So how does one make money by running a voicesite? There are only two ways – advertiser pays or the user pays.

Charging the user for paid-content:
Credit card penetration is increasing at a good pace – India has close to 50 million credit card users. Cash-cards like ItzCash have also reached healthy usage levels. Therefore one way to charge users for paid content is via IVRS based online credit card or cash card charging. There are IVRS-based payment gateway companies ready to integrate with your voicesite.

Ad-funded model:
A voicesite can adopt the ad-funded model where the content is free and revenue is generated via audio-ads. Voicesites can be seen as on-demand radio. They are to radio what IPTV is to television. Therefore, radio advertisers would become the obvious target for advertising on voicesites.

But wait – voicesites are a better deal to advertisers than radio.

  • Measurable ad delivery
  • Captive listernership – user can’t fast forward or switch channel
  • Actionable ads – advertiser can ask for response via IVRS

Voice portals are extending the reach and introducing new categories of users to value-added services, becasue they are multi-lingual and can be operated through IVRS or spoken commands (speech-recognition) without necessitating complicated downloads or settings.

The navigation menu, content and ads can be multi-lingual – a boon in a language rich country like India. Voicesites are handset agnostic and can be made available across operators on both CDMA & GSM networks. Even an illiterate rural user with the most basic handset can use the service.

The only limiting factor is the entrepreneur’s ability to think of innovative services!

So is there a catch? Am I missing something here? Would love to know from knowledgeable readers whether my lightbulb is faulty or is it indeed true that VoiceSites are an opportunity for startups and not just a realm of large companies.


A research report “Future of Mobile Value Added services in India” done by Stanford University graduate student Mohit Gundecha and Prof. Tom Kosnik in association with BDA is available for free download. Its a must download for anyone interested in the Indian Mobile VAS space.

Was good to interact with Mohit and contribute my bits towards the making of this report; and he is kind enough to mention my name in it.

The report gives a clear idea of the current and future of the mobile VAS market, including analysis of the dominant players in every part of the value chain. Along with identifying the key challenges currently existing in the market and how these challenges will evolve in the future or be overcome, the report also discusses the future wave of product and service offerings and the industry sentiment around each.

For the full report download of “Future of Mobile Value Added Services (VAS) in India”, click here.

For the Executive Summary Presentation of the report, click here.

To watch the Video of the Launch Event held on Stanford’s campus where the findings of the report were presented, followed by a panel discussion of industry leaders, click here.

To watch the event over Mobile phone, click here.


I recently download the Opera Mini 4 browser on my Nokia 6630. And the experience of using it prompted me to write this post. I have been a long time user of Opera Mini and it transformed the way I consumed the internet/web on my mobile. The latest version (Opera Mini 4) has a new improved formula for cleaner-whiter browsing provides better browsing experience with such cool features like mini-map, landscape mode, mouse cursor, shortcuts and contextual keystrokes.

Opera Mini

One test to check whether a product its indeed good, is to see if it increases the usage of any activity. Opera Mini 4 qualifies on that count; and the proof is my increased bill for GPRS usage charges.

I would rate the different browsers as follows, with the one listed at top as the best.

If you don’t have a latest Nokia phone like N95 or Apple’s iPhone – go for Opera Mini 4, to at least climb up the mobile browsing social ladder.

To download:
– Activate GPRS by calling your operator
– Get GPRS settings on your phone (most new phones come with settings, just select the one for your operator)
– Go to in your phone’s default mobile web browser
– If your phone model is supported, the web-page will have a download link

Click here for a demo of Opera Mini 4.


Jacob Cherian writes in Economic Times on Sideloading and its potential to hit revenues of Indian mobile VAS industry.

Sideloading involves users downloading mobile content (ringtones, wallpapers, music, games) onto the PC and transferring it to the mobile. Since the content does not pass through the mobile operator’s network, it cannot be charged for and there is a revenue loss to the operator.

Reliance Communications head of product development Anil Pande, recently said at Mobile Monday, a monthly industry event for mobile content developers and operators, that: “Side-loading of content is eating into VAS revenues.


Airtel has launched a voice portal for content downloads with a regional language interface in Kannada.

The VAS portal, launched in Karnataka, enables customers to download ring tones, devotional songs, and listen to content. There are plans to make available Astrology, news and other services on the portal.

An Airtel customer needs to call 51111 at Re. 1 a minute with a monthly rental of Rs 15 for the portal services. Without paying rental, he can access the service at Rs 2 per minute.

It would be interesting to know about the uptake of the service and its usage. I think the portal is intended for the Kannada speaking rural masses, who are more comfortable accessing services in their mother tongue. Although there is a charge to access the portal for content discovery and browsing, there is a good chance that the service might succeed. Initially rural users might try it for the novelty value, but they might keep using it because its the simplest way for them to access the downloads compared with the wap and sms portals.

As per the Business Standard article, Airtel’s share of new subscriber additions is almost 50% in Karnataka. Airtel’s is the leading operator with a market share in the state is 39% and a customer base of 5 million.


Industry body Assocham estimates that mobile value added services are poised to grow by over 65 per cent to touch Rs 8,200 crore ($2 billion) by the end of this fiscal from Rs 4,950 crore in the last fiscal.

  • Indian music industry earned more than 35 million dollar from such services which is equivalent to 20 per cent of its total revenue.
  • The total mobile music downloads in Indian markets are valued at 75 million dollars and is expected to grow by 25 per cent in the next year, the chamber said.
  • TV show Indian Idol on Sony got more than 55 million votes via SMS — at a rate of Rs 3 per SMS, that is Rs 16.5 crore. The telecom companies earned Rs 11.5 crore and Sony made Rs 5 crore, it added.

Source: ET


According to data compiled by UK-based Bango, 9% of all accesses to mobile websites now come from India, up from 4% a year ago.

Bango said it expects the mobile phone usage in India to exceed European levels within the next few years.

“We see that wherever flat-rate mobile data charges are pervasive in a country, then there’s much more web browsing,” Anderson added.

UK is the largest country in terms of the number of people accessing websites on mobiles, followed by the US and South Africa.

Source: The Hindu


Yahoo! has launched OneSearch, its mobile search service, in India.

OneSearch is a keyword search on the mobile at, which can be accessed on a mobile browser with a GPRS connection. All that users need to do is enter a zip code or the city name for OneSearch to start delivering local search results. The results appear on a single page, and are prioritized into categories based on calculations done by Yahoo! computers.

Unlike computer web search that spews raw sets of links, OneSearch throws up a list of actual information, such as news headlines, images from Yahoo’s Flickr site, business listings, local weather, and links to other Web sites.
For instance, instead of popular movies or critical reviews, OneSearch lists local theaters playing a particular movie, user ratings of the movie, and news headlines related to it.

Yahoo! intends to help a whole lot of local advertisers reach mobile phone customers – as they search. The ads will let users interact by visiting their sites or landing page, or by connecting to them through a call.

Prior to this launch, Yahoo! Go mobile was available to mobile users in India as a downloadable application, providing access to services such as Yahoo! Mail and Yahoo! Messenger.

This move by Yahoo! bodes well for growth of GPRS and browsable -web in India. I hope Yahoo! follows it up with a media campaign to spread awareness.

Sources: TechTree and agencyfaqs


Hindu Business Line has a story on leading cricket portal Cricinfo’s mobile plans. Read through the post to learn about the plans. But there’s one problem. Go towards the end of post to find out.

Anil Nair, Creative Head, Wireless Media, Cricinfo:

“We were one of the earliest providers of mobile cricket content. It started as a basic need through SMS scores when one couldn’t watch the match as he was away from the TV or travelling. But as technology is growing and handsets are getting better, activities on the mobile phone are getting more sophisticated. Although SMS still dominates the range of value-added services, its market is slowly being saturated. We are trying to prepare for the next stage through more complex applications through channels like MMS and WAP sites,”

Cricinfo works with Bangalore-based company Dhruva Interactive for its mobile phone applications and offers games, scores, alerts, ring tones and audio match analysis, apart from an application called Cricinfo Genie, which allows consumers to watch cricket live on their phones in an animated format.

Cricinfo Mobile will promote its services aggressively by buying online inventory and advertising on niche Web sites. Cricinfo believes all this will lead to a 25 per cent increase in uptake of all its mobile services during the World Cup. It is also expecting a 10-15 per cent conversion (of audience) from its portal Cricinfo to its mobile platform.

Some factoids from the article:

  • Mobile value-added services industry is worth Rs 2,850 crore
  • It could be Rs 4,560 crore by end-2007
  • And cricket is a key revenue driver of this
  • About 15% of mobiles in India are on the GPRS platform
  • And a large portion of that is in the 15-25 age bracket
  • There are 3-4 million unique visitors to a month
  • The second highest traffic on comes from the US

The plans look good and Cricinfo might be well positioned to capitalise from the mobile VAS business. But there is a problem which the HBL article does not mention. The ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 is in West Indies. And due to the different time zones, all the matches are scheduled to begin after 7 pm India time. Which means almost everyone will be home, well in time to watch the matches on TV. This reduces the addressable market size, as there will be lesser number of people who would need to catch the action on-the-go because of office or travel.

So this time, mobile operators and VAS companies are at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the TV channels.


France Telecom-owned Orange could take rival Vodafone’s lead and consider acquisitions in the Indian mobile market, says its chief executive Sanjiv Ahuja.

“India is a fast growing market and if a right opportunity emerges at the right kind of valuation, we would look at it. I wouldn’t rule anything out,”

But its current focus is the fast growing African markets.

“Africa is where we look at significant growth in terms of subscribers. We have been very very successful and continue to plan to expand in those markets,” he added.

Orange had 97 million customers in 24 countries at the end of 2006. Its biggest operations are in France and Britain.

I find the following comments in the article telling. Look! Heres a leading operator from a developed mobile market talking about the state of VAS.

Mobile operators have struggled to increase data revenues from areas other than text messaging. Third-generation mobile services such as video-calling and high-speed Web access are yet to provide a significant increase in revenues.

Ahuja said data-based services such as mobile music, video, mobile blogging and user generated content were gaining traction in Europe.

“That’s where I see Europe evolving to as a mature market… Is any one of these by itself significant enough, it’s not clear. But if you put them all together, its absolutely clear that these next generation services are playing a significant role in the future of this industry,” he said.

Source: ET