Missed calls / beeping / flashing – a universal strategy?

Posted on September 28, 2007  /  4 Comments

Missed calling (also referred to as beeping, flashing and many other names) has been most talked about in Africa; Johnathan Donner has been talking and writing about it for some time now; his research provides interesting insights into what he calls the ‘rules’ of beeping. A recent Reuters article looks at the growing phenomenon in not only Africa but other regions too. LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP survey findings also show that the phenomenon is considerably common among bottom of the pyramid (defined here as Socioeconomic Classification groups D & E) phone users in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. But what’s more interesting, is that the phenomenon was seen as being used more or less to the same extent in the ‘middle and top of the pyramid’ (defined in the study as Socioeconomic Classification groups A, B & C). This held true for phone owners in all five countries studied – Pakistan, India (with some of the lowest per minute call rates in the world), Sri Lanka, Philippines and even Thailand (the country with the highest per capita GDP among the set of countries studied). What this seems to imply that in addition to cost-saving reasons, this way of communicating may be used for other reasons too; perhaps to avoid disturbing the other person, or maybe even just as an easy way of giving your phone number to a new contact. This could be an interesting area for further study.

Phone credit low? Africans go for “beeping”
By Andrew Heavens | Wed Sep 26, 11:32 AM ET

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – If you are in Sudan it is a ‘missed call’. In Ethiopia it is a ‘miskin’ or a ‘pitiful’ call. In other parts of Africa it is a case of ‘flashing’, ‘beeping’ or in French-speaking areas ‘bipage’.

Wherever you are, it is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in the continent’s booming mobile telephone markets — and it’s a headache for mobile operators who are trying to figure out how to make some money out of it.

You beep someone when you call them up on their mobile phone — setting its display screen briefly flashing — then hang up half a second later, before they have had a chance to answer. Your friend — you hope — sees your name and number on their list of ‘Missed Calls’ and calls you back at his or her expense.

It is a tactic born out of ingenuity and necessity, say analysts who have tracked an explosion in miskin calls by cash-strapped cellphone users from Cape Town to Cairo.

“Its roots are as a strategy to save money,” said Jonathan Donner, an India-based researcher for Microsoft who is due to publish a paper on “The Rules of Beeping” in the high-brow online Journal of Computer Mediated Communication in October.

Donner first came across beeping in Rwanda, then tracked it across the continent and beyond, to south and southeast Asia. Studies quoted in his paper estimate between 20 to more than 30 percent of the calls made in Africa are just split-second flashes — empty appeals across the cellular network.

The beeping boom is being driven by a sharp rise in mobile phone use across the continent.

Africa had an estimated 192.5 million mobile phone users in 2006, up from just 25.3 million in 2001, according to figures from the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union. Customers may have enough money for the one-off purchase of a handset, but very little ready cash to spend on phone cards for the prepaid accounts that dominate the market.

Africa’s mobile phone companies say the practice has become so widespread they have had to step in to prevent their circuits being swamped by second-long calls.

“We have about 355 million calls across the whole network every day,” said Faisal Ijaz Khan, chief marketing officer for the Sudanese arm of Kuwaiti mobile phone operator Zain (formerly MTC). “And then there are another 130 million missed calls every day. There are a lot of missed calls in Africa.”


Zain is responding to the demand by drawing up plans for a “Call-me-back” service in Sudan, letting customers send open requests in the form of a very basic signal to friends for a phone call.

The main advantage for the company is that the requests will be diverted from the main network and pushed through using a much cheaper technology (USSD or Unstructured Supplementary Service Data).

A handful of similar schemes are springing up across Africa, says Informa principal analyst Devine Kofiloto. “It is widespread. It is a concern for operators in African countries, whose networks become congested depending on the time of day with calls they cannot bill for.

“They try to discourage the practice by introducing services where customers can send a limited number of ‘call-back’ request either free of charge or for a minimum fee.”

There are plenty of other reasons why mobile operators are keen to cut down on the practice. One is it annoys customers, pestered by repeated missed calls.

A second is that ‘flashes’ eat into one of mobile phone companies’ favorite performance indicators — ARPU or average revenue per user. Miscalls earn very little in themselves – and don’t always persuade the target to ring back.

Orange Senegal, Kofiloto said, lets customers send a ‘Rappelle moi’ (‘Call me back’) when their phone credit drops below $0.10. With Safaricom Kenya, it is a “Flashback 130” (limited to five a day — and with the admonishment ‘Stop Flashing! Ask Nicely’). Vodacom DR Congo’s ‘Rappelez moi SVP’ service costs $0.01 a message.


But beeping is not only about money. Donner’s ‘Rules of Beeping’ suggests a social protocol for the practice.

“The richer guy pays,” he writes. It is acceptable to beep someone if you are short of cash and they are flush with credit. Never beep someone poorer than you.

Never beep someone you are tapping for a favor. You don’t want to risk annoying the person you are trying to win over. Never flash your girlfriend, unless you want to look cheap.

“Most beeps are requests to the mobile owner to call back immediately, but can also send a pre-negotiated instrumental message such as pick me up now,’ or send a relational sign, such as I’m thinking of you,'” the paper says.

It can go even further than that.

Cameroonian researchers Victor W.A. Mbarika and Irene Mbarika identified a different kind of beeping-powered relational call in a study for the technology association the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

“Lovers often communicate with text messages or beeping’,” said the study. “One party dials another’s number and then hangs up. One ring could mean, I am here,’ two rings, Call me now.'”

And the name they gave this new entry in the beeping lexicon? Borrowing a street slang term for an appeal for sex, they christened it “the booty call.”


  1. This is very interesting method even which I’ve noticed often among many people. Example, where to inform driver to come to front from parking lot for pickup “a ring cut” is used. So the ring cut means in that instance to come to main gate or something like that.

    However, I believe this can be changed to revenue if operators can introduce “per second billing”. Per minute billing which is common among most of the operators charge the user for a minute irrespective of call duration. So by introducing “per second billing” people will make 10-20 second calls where if the charge is Rs. 2/- per min they will pay something like 30-40Cts for a short call. This will enable to pass important emergency messages at the lowest cost like “my father passed away please come back to village soon, and the funeral is tomorrow” can be perhaps delivered within 10 seconds with the lowest cost. As mentioned in the above report if someone POOR is calling another POOR person the ring cut will not be effective to deliver a message. However, if it’s per second billing people will make the call to deliver the important message. So if operators are thinking of converting “ring cuts” into paid revenue they should introduce “per second billing” which has greater potential to convert “ring cuts” to paid revenue.

    Even with per second billing am sure people will still continue at least some level of beeping or ring-cuts for pre-defined messages such as “come back to main gate”, “call me back”, “I am here” etc. But who knows all this could change to paid revenue through per second billing!!

  2. Another interesting story related to the subject from Australia highlights same content from the MS guy and african story,

    “PRANKING is a common occurrence among many young Australians, who may have enough money for a mobile phone but find themselves short on credit to make calls.” – from /news.com.au

    http://www.news.com.au/mercury/story/0,22884,22485868-5006544,00.html for the full story.

  3. I’m on a study in Nigeria and the focus is on this practice. There are many reasons attached to it, not only economic. There used to be a joke about a former vice-president who would “flash” his boss just to amuse him. However, he later gave up the practice when the president sent him an SMS that “flashers are liable to die young!” (reconstructing the Federal Ministry of Health’s warning against smoking).