Read this feature about how India’s digital revolution started with missed calls

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Leaving a missed call on someone’s phone usually means calling them back, but at one point in India, it was communication in itself. A new position from Atul Bhattarai in Rest of the world explores the Indian culture that grew up around missed calls – and the startups that took advantage of them.

In general terms, a “missed call” means that you call a person but hang up before they can answer. By hanging up without talking, users can send a standard message (“I called”) without having to pay for minutes or texts – like calling someone without a pager. Bhattarai focuses on ZipDial, a company that turned missed calls into a robust advertising business and a way to experience some of the features of online life without paying for data.

As Bhattarai writes, the use of missed calls to communicate arose because of the high cost of cellular data and limited access to high-speed internet. By calling long enough to connect to someone else’s phone and then hanging up or not answering the other end, you were not charged for the call. These missed calls can mean a variety of things, such as letting a friend know you’re on the way or letting a loved one know you’re missing them. “The fact that the missed call required only basic numerical literacy made it accessible to a third of the Indian population who were illiterate,” explains Bhattarai.

ZipDial combined the trend of missed calls and pre-existing SMS services into a sort of one-stop shop for cell phone owners who wanted basic Internet functionality. ZipDial would partner with a brand and set up a hotline where people can call for services such as sports scores or celebrity tweets. All it took was “log in” to a missed call.

Bhattarai also highlights a proto-Spotify algorithmic playlist service called Kan Khajura, which delivered new music in 15-minute calls. “Kan Khajura’s main appeal was for it to be accessible anywhere, anytime, unlike the radio and TV,” Bhattarai writes.

Those companies became unsustainable as mobile data became cheaper and ZipDial was discontinued in 2016. But Bhattarai argues that the services helped bridge the offline-online divide at a time before internet service providers and physical infrastructure were catching up.

You can read the full feature at ZipDial’s Missed Call Empire On Rest of the world.