Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Most current messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage and Signal, offer subscribers an alternative to SMS, letting them bypass operator networks when on Wi-Fi or only use some bits of cellular data. This has diluted the relationship between mobile operators and their customers.
Since 1992, operators around the globe have offered SMS, even as basic handsets were replaced by smartphones. While their messaging services evolved slowly to allow longer messages and multimedia content, the world around them moved much faster, making this system seem outdated to most modern-day mobile customers.
Operators have been working to address this by implementing the next generation of the Rich Communication Services (RCS) messaging standard. RCS has been adopted in drips and drabs, but has seen stronger momentum in recent years. Now, T-Mobile US is throwing support behind the protocol. The self-dubbed Un-carrier announced it will offer the RCS Universal Profile to "select" Android devices, starting with Samsung's Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge, two very popular smartphones. Despite being two years old, these handsets continue to make up a significant portion of operators' Android subscriber numbers.
The Universal Profile is a specification that outlines a set of advanced calling and messaging features, and how communication services should be built to enable those features. It's backed by a large and growing ecosystem encompassing more than 60 organisations, all of which have committed to supporting a single implementation of the Universal Profile standard to accelerate the availability of advanced communications.
RCS supports picture messages up to 10 MB in size, group chats, location sharing, video calling and file sharing, all features that users would expect to find in modern communication systems. RCS has been in the works since 2007, standardized through the GSMA, but adoption has been slow and haphazard. Various mobile phone operators have offered their own versions of the service, typically called "advanced messaging" or similar, but they haven't always been interoperable, which has prevented the network effect from kicking in. One company that has been addressing the challenge of cooperation between operators is Google; the online giant is viewed as the champion for the RCS cause (see Spark of Life for Rich Communication).
Several factors need to be aligned for customers to enjoy the full RCS messaging experience: the protocol needs to be adopted by their mobile operator, and by the handsets of the sender and recipient, otherwise RCS messages will revert to SMS.
US carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile, have announced support for the Universal Profile; AT&T and Verizon have agreed to the RCS standard, but they have yet to provide a timeline for roll-out. RCS offers operators a chance to avoid becoming simple bit pipes providing the Internet access for other service providers to exploit.