SMS and MMS seem positively archaic by the standards set by today’s popular data-based messaging platforms. The industry could do with a refresh to its default communication standard. Fortunately, carriers are already moving on to the new Rich Communications Services (RCS) standard, and we’re looking a wider roll out to consumers next year.
As a general overview, RCS is part of the new Advanced Messaging standard designed to greatly improve messaging functionality that comes installed on phones by default. Along with text messages, RCS will also allow for higher quality picture messaging up to 10MB in size, group chats, location sharing, and even video calls by default. The service also supports read receipts and typing indicators that you’re probably already familiar with from other services.
Unlike SMS, the new technology can be integrated with contact apps to see who else supports the service, as well as for sharing contacts and groups. RCS is also looking to go beyond the capabilities seen in many of today’s messaging apps. The standard can also be used to share media, location, and other information while you’re already in a telephone conversation.
However, to send and receive Rich Communications Services messages, both parties must be using a compatible messaging app and network. Fortunately, the system is designed to fall back to SMS or MMS when the recipient doesn’t support RCS.
In theory, the introduction of RCS will avoid the hassle of having to agree to a third-party platform for group or video chat, as the service is tied to your mobile number and future phone owners will have these features out of the box. The aim is to provide a consistent interoperable messaging service across mobile device and networks. At least for Android, there doesn’t appear to be any work being done to bring RCS to iPhones. Plus Apple already has its popular iMessage service.
Meet the Universal Profile
As this new standard expands the default SMS and MMS functionality provided by carriers, these companies also need to get on board with RCS to bring it to a wide range of consumers, and that has proven a little more tricky. Fortunately, RCS is tied in with the GSMA’s Universal Profile. GSMA is a global association of network operators and companies that works on creating unified standards for the industry. The Universal Profile is a specification which outlines a set of Advanced Calling and Messaging features and how communication services are to be built to support these features.
Participation in the Universal Profile is not necessary to support Advanced Messaging, instead it is designed to expedite the roll out and ensure compatibility. Upcoming smartphones built in conjunction with the program will ship with a built-in Advanced Messaging app, while other developers are free to build global clients to support messaging across all devices and networks, but more on that later.
55 mobile operators, 11 manufacturers, and two operating systems have launched support
Release 1.0 of the Universal Profile standard made its debut in November 2016 and covers the core features. These include contact discovery across regions, messaging, group chat, file transfer, audio messaging, video share, multi-device, enriched calling, location sharing, and live sketching. Release 2.0 focuses on the developer end, with APIs, plug-in integration and improved authentication, app security, and entry routes for commerce applications.
In the U.S., all four major carriers support the standard, although AT&T is the only one who doesn’t support any handsets at the moment. We’ll just have to see how this plays out. Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom have most of Europe covered, Claro is bringing the service to Latin and South America, while KT, LG Uplus, and SK Telecom are all signed up in South Korea. A total of 55 national operations have already launched Rich Communications Services.
Google, Android, and Jibe
Despite all of these names being involved, Google has taken on the responsibility of providing the main platform for this new messaging service. Jibe, which Google purchased back in 2015, has developed a universal Android client based on the Universal Profile for Advanced Messaging. Google is also offering a carrier-hosted service for operators to launch and manage Advanced Messaging services with, without having to deploy their own infrastructure. This should expedite the roll out and will ensure service compatibility for all users.
Google's Android Messages RCS client supports SMS, MMS, and RCS all in one place and will be updated through the Play Store.
For operators, this “Jibe Hub” offers a simple connection to the global RCS network, so that messages from any device can quickly reach any other, regardless of their network carrier. It also supports access to third-party RCS networks, which some operators may choose to implement rather than relying on Google’s infrastructure, particularly in countries outside of the U.S.
Google’s RCS client for consumers is Android Messages, which offers support for SMS, MMS, and RCS all in one place, and is interoperable with any RCS-compliant client on any other smartphone or operator. Perhaps best of all, this application is hosted and updated through the Google Play Store, so new features can be easily patched in. Google also provides an open source version of the client and to release APIs to help enhance the client experience. If you don’t like Google’s app, Samsung also supports RCS via Samsung Messages. The two companies are collaborating closely to ensure feature parity.
When can I starting using it?
Some of you might already be using RCS messaging, but many others aren’t. There are lots of pieces that have to fall into place, including app, device, and carrier support. Fortunately virtually all new Android devices ship with Android Messages pre-installed, so that’s one less hurdle to overcome.
At the last count, 55 carriers support the protocol. Major names on the list include AT&T, Bell, NTT Docomo, Orange, Rogers, Sprint, Telefonica, Telus, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Vodafone, among others. 11 smartphone manufacturers are onboard too. The list includes Alcatel, Asus, HTC, Lenovo, LG, Huawei, Samsung, and ZTE for the most notable names.
Support is gradually rolling out across carriers and devices, although as RCS requires a software update we’re unlikely to see to many old handsets support RCS. For example, T-Mobile finally adopted the Universal Profile 1.0 standard and brought support to the Galaxy S7, but only to the native messaging app. Samsung has also listed devices that will see RCS support, but that only extends back as far as the Galaxy S8 and only applies once phones are updated to Android 9 Pie.
In the U.S., Sprint customers are likely enjoying RCS on supported devices, as it was early to adopt the specification. T-Mobile is increasing its number of supported devices after adopting the full GSMA Universal Profile this year. Verizon has RCS support on the Pixel 3 and plans for wider support in early 2019. Meanwhile, AT&T is being much quieter on its plans to bring support to consumers.
The bottom line is that RCS adoption is frustratingly slow. Although, going forward we should see an increasing number of new smartphones support the standard out-of-the-box.