For those who do not mind the annoyance of advertisements right in the middle of a conversation, a team of engineers in Bangalore has a free voice calling (phone call) service for any part of the world. Termed FreeKall, it brings voice-over-internet-like services to those without internet access.
The idea, which was thought up in the dorm of M S Ramaiah Institute of Technology in Bangalore, was launched as a service last Saturday. Still in beta, or testing phase, nearly four lakh FreeKalls have been made so far.
“The response has been phenomenal. Our servers crashed about seven times and we had to bring it back up,” said Yashas Shekar, a 23-year-old who cofounded the company with college-mates Vijayakumar Umaluti and Sandesh Eshwarappa. “On the flip side Sandesh, and Vijayakumar have not slept since Saturday,” chuckled Shekar, a former Godrej Interio employee who shut his first venture, a web development firm, to concentrate on this startup.
The service, in some ways, is reminiscent of the trunk calls of the last century, except that the cloud infrastructure does the job instead of an operator. To make a FreeKall a user dials number 080-67683693 and the call is disconnected after just one ring. Following this, the system calls back the user, and an automated system prompts the user to dial the desired number. Lo and behold, the call is connected. The system can currently support 10,000 requests per second. If it goes beyond that, it will not be returned.
“I must say, someone has thought out of the box. This can be truly disruptive if it works out well,” said Hemant Joshi, who oversees the telecom practice at consulting firm Deloitte.
FreeKall makes money by making people listen to advertisements. So, when the call is connected, the user hears an advertisement instead of a ringing tone. And at intervals of two minutes, the caller and the called party will have to pause the conversation and hear an advertisement for soaps, shampoos and the like.
For now, unregistered users can make calls that last three minutes. For those who register, the conversations can last 12 minutes. In about a month, there will be no limit on the amount of time a person can FreeKall. International calls will be possible in about a month, once legal clearances are obtained.
The company is aiming for 10 million calls a day in India and expects revenue of $30 million ( 185 crore) by the end of the next fiscal. It plans to take its business to Africa soon.
Freekall has tieups with a media agency called Streetsmart Media Solutions for the advertisements.
The idea originated in 2008 when Umaluti, 25, thought of facilitating free calls, albeit manually, through a call centre. The other cofounders, with their experience in web development, looked at a cloud-based implementation and decided to revisit the college project idea last year.
FreeKall has received 10 lakh in seed capital from Ranjith Cherickel, a telecom professional who has worked at Nokia Siemens Networks, Verizon Wireless and Skype. “I expect them to expand internationally in less than a year. This will work well in developing countries and potentially in high-tariff developed markets,” said Cherickel.
Although there are several applications that provide free calls, the 3G infrastructure in India is not robust enough to support calls at all time and all places. What FreeKall is doing is trying to tap into areas that services such as Skype and Viber are yet to penetrate.
“The company should move fast in terms of engaging with advertising networks and digital agencies and consider how best to get IP protection. A lot depends on them showing value to advertisers by profiling users accurately and delivering relevant targeted ads,” said Ravi Gururaj, chairman of Nasscom Product Council.
By launching an app in about a quarter, the company is also looking to capture the smartphone market and minimise the number of steps to make a call.
Shekar knows that smartphone adoption and internet connectivity will only increase. “But it’s not going to happen in the next five years at least. By then, we would have captured a big market,” he said.
Joshi of Deloitte warned of problems such as heavy loads and connectivity problems for cloud telephony. As for telecom service providers, for whom a major chunk of the revenue originates from voice calls, this will not be disruptive in the short term, said Joshi.
“Those who use this service will mostly be prepaid users, and the average revenue per user is small enough.”