What is RCS?
As a general overview, Rich Communication Services (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 appears to support read receipts and typing indicators that you’re probably already familiar with from other services. Fortunately, RCS is being 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.
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 much be using a compatible messaging app and network, and support is not universal, yet. 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. Well 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.
How does it different from regular ol’ SMS?
With RCS, you can see when others are typing, when your message gets delivered, and when the person on the other end is typing a reply. It also ups the ante on traditional MMS messaging by enabling you to send videos and photos up to 10MB.
Standard SMS doesn’t allow you to do any of that. It’s slower; there are file size limitations on attachments (MMS Messaging caps are currently set below 2MB, depending on your carrier); and there’s no way to tell if the person on the other end has seen your message.
Do I need an app to use it?
Even if RCS is supported by your carrier, you need a compatible messaging app. The software update that T-Mobile will push to its users to enable Advanced Messaging will include a messaging app that supports it. Your favorite text messaging application might not yet support it, however, though that will likely change once more carriers get on board.
When can I starting using it?
RCS is actually already live now, sort of. T-Mobile and AT&T offer some of these Advanced Messaging features through their stock messaging apps on a selection of modern devices, but this deployment is based on pre-Universal Profiles. The latest development has seen Google introduce RCS support with its own Messenger 2.0 app, providing that users are on a supported network and have a compatible device (currently just the Pixel XL and Nexus 6P). Sprint has become the first carrier to partner with Google to bring the Messaging app to select LG and Nexus handset, and to begin installing Messenger as the default app on future handsets sold through its retail operations.
However, GSMA’s Universal Profile is not fully up and running, so we don’t have a single standardized version of RCS yet. The majority of fully certified devices and networks aren’t scheduled to launch until sometime in Q2 2017. Therefore the fully inter-operable system isn’t quite ready and so wide reaching compatibility and use of the full feature set cannot be guaranteed. Between now and then, network operators are encouraged to deploy mature systems and begin transitioning toward the full Universal Profile, as will OEM’s. This probably explains why Google has decided now is the time to start testing out these features on its network-agnostic Messenger app.
In other words, the first fully Universal Profile compatible devices and networks arrive until Q2 2017, but that isn’t stopping advanced messaging services from starting up. Much like the roll-out of 4G LTE, carriers and OEM are gradually moving towards realizing the full specification that will see a universal advanced messaging platform deployed across the Android ecosystem.