Author(s): Raghu Gopal
During the past decade, mobile subscribers have been replacing their operators' value-added services with popular third-party apps. Cellular data has enabled over-the-top services such as Facebook, iMessage, Instagram, Skype and WhatsApp to prosper on smartphones, in many cases replacing the need for SMS, MMS and even classic circuit-switched voice services.
Mobile operators have long been aware of competitive pressures from social media start-ups and shifts in consumer behaviour, but the challenges haven't been easy to address head-on. There's a mismatch between the standardised operator environment and that of fast-moving proprietary Internet-centric companies.
Almost 10 years ago, a group of global mobile operators kicked off what would be Rich Communication Services (RCS), a suite of value-added services enabled by the IP Multimedia Subsystem architecture. RCS gives mobile subscribers access to a modern, advanced communications service without the need to create a separate user account, something that appears to be a small hurdle for more people given the massive number of users of services like Facebook.
RCS has been adopted in various forms by only about two dozen operators worldwide with a few dozen more coming. However, support for the initiative has varied not only between operators but also between smartphone models. Earlier in 2016, Google announced plans to support RCS within Android (see Google Teams Up for RCS). The move had the potential to be a big boost for operators, but it may have been the last hope for the RCS initiative considering it came too late in the game to curtail the huge take-up of popular messaging services.
Last week, Google announced that US mobile carrier Sprint is adopting Google's Android RCS Messenger client to modernise the SMS experience. We question whether new offerings from Sprint will bring sufficient differentiation to the messaging market to encourage customers to migrate, and whether there's really a business case for operators to justify such a move.
Native RCS support in Android by Google has potential to be a step forward for operators. Services such as Apple's iMessage and Facebook Messenger are ostensibly becoming de facto communication standards, causing a shift in brand awareness from the likes of AT&T, Orange and Vodafone to Apple and Facebook. The challenge for Google is that limited support from operators combined with the availability of RCS only on more-recent Android devices significantly restricts its potential.
Operators have had tremendous success with basic text messaging with trillions of messages being sent per year. SMS has worked for billions of subscribers without the need to consider app compatibility. Carriers such as America Movil, AT&T, Orange and Sprint have rolled out RCS services, but these have worked on some devices, not others. For the RCS faithful, there's still hope, but with gaps.