US operators join forces in yet another attempt to keep RCS alive

Despite having had almost no discernible impact on reversing the rise of over-the-top and social messaging at the expense of mobile SMS, the Rich Communications Services (RCS) technology still refuses to die. Originally championed by the GSMA in 2008, as a way for MNOs to counter the rise of WhatsApp and Skype, it looked set to disappear into mobile history until Google took up its cause and turned it into an Android platform in 2016.

Even that has hardly turned RCS – which adds rich media and video functionality, among other things, to cellular voice and text – into a WhatsApp contender. But every few months some operator proclaims that RCS is set for the big time, and this time around, that claim is being made for a new US-based initiative.

This is the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative (CCMI), formed by Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon and unveiled at the recent MWC Los Angeles show. The group is working on a common messaging service based on the RCS standard and on Google’s implementation for Android devices. The application will be launched next year, with the operators claiming it will be more than just a consumer service (and a rather retro one, in the age of 5G multimedia and holographic messaging), but will instead support revenues from businesses which want to market to mobile users more effectively and intuitively.

Primarily, according to Doug Garland, general manager of CCMI, consumers want to communicate with businesses and brands through messaging rather than phone calls. This sounds like a claim from the early days of SMS, rather than 2019 when users have many alternatives to the call queue, including social media of course. He insisted that consumers will welcome a consistent experience which will enable them to communicate easily with any supporting business, via a common, rich user interface.

Vodafone has been particularly active in piloting the new version of the technology, with test campaigns for Disney and McDonald’s, in partnership with mobile advertising firm Out There Media (OTM). The campaigns were the 2019 Lion King release and McDonald’s Rewards program, which saw 72% and 73% read rates respectively, according to Vodafone, with a conversion rate of about 3%.

“People love text messaging for a reason,” said David Christopher, general manager of AT&T Mobility. “Texting is trusted, reliable and readily available – which is why we’re using it to build the foundation of a simple, immersive messaging experience. This service will power new and innovative ways for customers to engage with each other and their favourite brands.”

Michel Combes, CEO of Sprint, was even more optimistic about RCS’s role in a digital 5G era, saying in his statement: “As we have seen in Asia, messaging is poised to become the next significant digital platform. CCMI will make it easy for consumers to navigate their lives from a smartphone.”

The CCMI implementation will support all the features of the RCS standard, including handling of high-resolution photos and attachments. The benefit for operators is that it will be more tightly integrated with their network and core than the Google version, which is cloud-based. This restores much of the original appeal of RCS – that it is tied to the mobile network, unlike an OTT app, and so usage can be monitored and monetized by the MNO, and integrated with its back office systems and its other apps.

The CCMI, therefore, looks like a bid to assert a measure of independence from Google, so that operators, and not the search giant, are in pole position to monetize the messaging in consumer or B2B ways; and because it hopes that Apple will support the platform too. “We are hoping that in time Apple will also support RCS as it has VoLTE,” Garland said.

However, this assumes that there will be significant usage to monetize, especially as Google’s support, and its own implementation, were widely seen as a last-ditch rescue for RCS.

According to the GSMA, 81 operators globally have launched RCS, and another 21 are expected to follow in the first quarter of 2020. There are no details on the consumer uptake of these services, or how they measure up against over-the-top mobile alternatives, though the earlier history of the technology has rarely been encouraging. Limited operator uptake and even slower moves to make different MNOs’ services interoperable did not help to stem the tide of Skype and WhatsApp.

Google stepped in, in 2016, and said it would make RCS an in-built Android service, which would be offered in partnership with operators, initially Sprint. Not much has happened so far, but in June, Google took a more positive step, saying it would launch its own RCS service, rather than just providing an Android client as before. Reports indicated that the launch markets would be the UK and France, rather than the USA, where it previously targeted its initial RCS operator alliances.

Android device users would be able to send RCS messages and content using mobile broadband and Google’s servers, bypassing the cellular network in areas where there was no carrier-delivered RCS service. That gets round the problem of roaming and limited MNO support, but it sacrifices the end-to-end encryption of SMS, and removes a degree of control from the operators. And it will not be a default in Android, just an active choice.

But will anyone make that choice, or will RCS – whether a carrier implementation like CCMI or Google’s version – need to be pre-integrated by handset makers to have any chance of success? It is clear that Google’s and the MNOs’ interests are aligned here – to defend themselves against WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype. But the idea that RCS might evolve into a full social media and communications platform like Facebook’s seems fanciful. Neither the operators nor Google have made a success of social platforms and RCS in its current form adds little to the ever-expanding capabilities of the OTT messaging services.

Google has been working with RCS since it acquired Jibe Mobile in 2015 and in 2016 it released a universal profile which would allow different implementations to work together. Its unexpected interest was probably the only thing that saved RCS from being completely moribund, given that only a small handful of operators had supported it, and only Spain and South Korea had multi-operator roaming.

The early hopes for RCS – that it would support rich messaging experiences which customers would be happy to pay for, despite the rise of free services like WhatsApp – have unsurprisingly been dashed. While the GSMA and the few RCS deployers spent years working on services and interoperability tests, the OTT alternatives changed the face of mobile communications, and left Google out in the cold too.

Google says the Universal Profile, the GSMA spec which it supported and effectively launched in the market in 2016, is now supported by 55 operators round the world, and by Microsoft. The GSMA says this is “a single, industry-agreed set of features and technical enablers developed to simplify the product development and global operator deployment of RCS”.

Despite CCMI, if RCS does succeed against the odds, it seems more likely that this will be because Google brought the ecosystem together and made a workable app out of years of GSMA operators’ technical tinkering. But success will likely come largely at the expense of remaining SMS usage, not because it steals significant share from WhatsApp.

It is more likely to fail. Google has been surprisingly weak at creating a compelling messaging offer and having RCS as its base hardly suggests this one will be better. Operator support is valuable but not a deciding factor in an app’s success (though some of WhatsApp’s strongest early markets were built in partnership with emerging market MNOs).

But the likelihood of RCS delivering its ambitious goal of saving MNOs’ messaging business is almost as far away as before.

The CCMI’s set of objectives includes:

  • Drive a robust business-to-consumer messaging ecosystem and accelerate the adoption of Rich Communications Services (RCS)
  • Enable an enhanced experience to privately send individual or group chats across carriers with high quality pictures and videos
  • Provide consumers with the ability to chat with their favourite brands, order a rideshare, pay bills or schedule appointments, and more
  • Create a single seamless, interoperable RCS experience across carriers, both in the U.S. and globally

Ana Tavares Lattibeaudiere, head of GSMA North America, stressed that the CCMI initiative needed to go global for RCS to fufil its potential. “We want to incentivize every operator around the world to launch for their own country, but we also want to make it so that if you have a global brand that wants to launch a service that they can do it across every country and every user,” she told FierceWireless. “They might call it something else, but at the end of the day, it will be interoperable. That’s the main objective.”