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.
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.
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.
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.
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.