Missed calls: The Morse code of the early mobile era

When I got my first mobile phone in 2007, I realized that I bit off more than I could chew.

I was an undergraduate student who was struggling to end each month with meager pocket money of INR 200 ($3) per month. I used this money for traveling to my friends’ place on weekends, buy snacks when I am hungry and take occasional photocopies from the library.

With the new mobile at hand, I was forced to spend at least 25% of my pocket money on 10 rupee recharge cards and SMS booster packs. It was hard. There was a time where I maintained a 0.02 balance for one whole year!

To save money, I always used to use missed calls. In fact, a lot of my friends used missed calls as an effective communication medium. Missed calls were widely used in situations like number exchanges; To notify a friend that we reached home safely; Or when we wanted to speak to someone but did not have sufficient balance.

The early days of the mobile era in India were exciting and missed calls contributed a great deal towards that excitement.

But today, we’ve crossed that stage of recharge cards, festive booster packs, and hanging up before your call timer crosses the one minute mark. We’re always connected and completely forgot about missed calls that acted as our morse code during the early mobile era.

The rise of missed calls

Missed calls were not popular in western countries like they were in developing countries. The reason was, during the initial years of the mobile era (the mid-2000s), a lot of Indian customers opted for a prepaid connection rather than a postpaid connection. The reason was, a postpaid connection was more expensive, and customers were often billed with a lot of hidden and additional charges. So, people opted for a prepaid connection that was easy to get, simple to recharge and was comparatively less expensive.

Almost every prepaid connection that existed back then had limited outgoing calls and unlimited incoming calls. SMS was also a little expensive and it usually involved recharging with an SMS booster pack.

So, in order to save money, people came up with creative ways to use missed calls. People often came to an agreement among themselves to what does it mean when they receive a missed call from another person.

When I was in college and was out with my friends, my mom would always call me from our landline phone at a specified time to know my whereabouts, which was the primary reason I was given a phone. And, whenever I would want my parents to call me, I would give them a missed call. If our landline phone stops ringing after two rings, my parents knew it was me.

I was able to do this even when I had 0.02, which was not sufficient to make a call. I would send a text to my friend asking him to give a missed call to my home number. The phone would ring twice and they would call me.

Simple, but effective. A majority of mobile users used a similar method to convey their message or communicate with their family and friends.

Missed calls across the world

Missed calls are known by different names across the globe. Miskol in the Philippines; Beep in Africa; Memancing in Indonesia; Flashcall in Pakistan; And miskin—Amharic in Ethiopia, which means “poorest of the poor”.

In some countries missed call patterns often conveyed a specific message. In Bangladesh, two missed calls meant “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria, five missed calls in rapid succession mean “I’m online, let’s chat.”

Farmers in Bhutan know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then give a missed call to the customer back within 15 minutes; no missed call means no stock.

In Tanzania, mobile phone users developed their own language using Flash calls. For example, flashing once may mean “I am on the way”; flash twice “I am waiting downstairs”; flash thrice “I am at home” etc.

Missed call numbers

There was a point where mobile networks used to face congestion in their network only because of people giving missed calls to each other.

It is said that at a point in time during the mid-2000s, 40% of all the calls made in India were missed calls.

70% of Grameenphone’s (Bangladesh) total network traffic was constituted by missed calls.

In August 2005, a Kenyan GSM provider recorded 4 million missed calls every day.

Missed call in Business and Social Activism

Businesses started riding the missed call wave by launching various services. You can give a missed call to your bank from your registered mobile number to know your account balance.

Political parties used missed calls to recruit people to their parties; organizations used missed calls for a callback service, and reality shows used missed calls to encourage people to vote for their favorite contestants.

A good example is the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) using their missed call campaign to recruit 7,00,000 people for their party.

Missed calls also played a great role in showing support for several social activist campaigns like Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign, Save Nethravathi river campaign, etc.

Today, we hardly use missed calls.

A few of us still use it only to exchange numbers. But, nothing more than that. The abundance of 4G data and unlimited calling made us completely forget about how we used missed calls. The era of missed calls was exciting. No doubt. But, its time had come. And, we should make peace with it. But, it will always stay in our minds as a pleasant memory.