RCS: What it is and why you might want it

02Jan 2019
By Financial Times Reporter
Dar es Salaam
Financial Times
RCS: What it is and why you might want it

A lot of people have become bored with SMS messaging, and the tech industry is very aware of it.

While services such as Apple’s iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp allow you to add photos, GIFs and videos to your messages, they are not universal solutions — for example, you can’t send a WhatsApp message if your correspondent uses Facebook Messenger. The answer — or so Google and other companies are hoping — is Rich Communications Services or RCS.

What is RCS?

RCS is a new online protocol that was chosen for adoption by the GSM Association in 2008 and is meant to replace the current texting standard SMS (Short Message Service), which has been around since the 1990s.

The GMSA represents a wide variety of organizations in the mobile industry, including device and software companies, internet companies, etc. Naturally, given all those players, it took a while to come to an agreement, and so it wasn’t until 2016 that the GSMA was able to come up with something resembling a standard. Called the Universal Profile, it is, according to the GMSA, a “single, industry-agreed set of features and technical enablers.”

How is RCS better than SMS?

RCS will add a lot more multimedia capabilities to your messaging. Besides the usual texts (plain and fancy), it will make it simple to send GIFs, high-resolution still photos, and videos. It will let you know if the person you’re texting is available, and can send you a receipt to prove they received your message.

It will allow you to create longer messages and attach larger files. It also enables much better group messaging than SMS can handle. In other words, it can make standard text messaging look and work a lot like iMessage.

It will also make it easier for companies to interact with the customers. So, for example, RCS will allow you to quickly find out the status of an order, and will provide a way for companies to encourage customer comments on their sites. (Okay, that may not be top of your list of great features.)

As of this writing, support for RCS has been promised by 55 carriers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and a slew of secondary companies; 11 hardware manufacturers such as Samsung, Lenovo, and LG (but not Apple), and both Microsoft and Google.

Is anyone using RCS yet?

Google has been a major backer of RCS and even offers back-end services to carriers to help them quickly spin up support for it, but at the end of the day it’s the carriers that are responsible for launching and supporting it. The big recent news is that Verizon is beginning its rollout of the service, but only in a very limited way to start.

Currently, Verizon only offers it on Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL phones — and even then it hasn’t hit all those customers yet. But because Verizon is supporting the “Universal Profile” (more on that in a minute), it will work with any other phone that supports it.

Somewhat confusingly, most carriers are opting to call their RCS services “Chat.” It’s confusing because Google itself has a product called “Hangouts Chat” which is used in corporate environments and will eventually make its way to consumers. If you’ve got Chat, you can still send messages to somebody without the capability — they will just get normal SMS texts. So it’s a fairly limited try-out, for now.

There are some other carriers that support RCS. T-Mobile added Universal Profile version 1.0 of RCS to its Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge phones in June. Sprint announced it was launching RCS with Universal Profile to its devices in early November, and promised that all its new 2019 devices would come with RCS preloaded. Anything using the “Universal Profile” standard should support cross-carrier messaging — but if you look at the carrier sites, they only claim to communicate within their networks, and we have not yet been able to test whether RCS-capable T-Mobile or Sprint devices can exchange RCS messages with Pixel 3 phones.

Muddying the waters even more is the fact that some carriers and device makers are currently using RCS, but not the Universal Profile (which is being used by Chat), so their apps and services are not cross-compatible with those being used by other vendors.

Why are people saying it’s not secure?

One issue that a lot of security nerds are pointing out is that RCS — and, therefore, apps such as Chat — lack the end-to-end encryption available in some current messaging tools such as WhatsApp. End-to-end encryption means that the message is impenetrable to everyone — including the app vendor and the network provider — except the message sender and receiver. You want to text someone with no chance that the authorities will ever see it? Chat / RCS is not the way.

On the other hand, RCS does have all the standard security protocols, including Transport Layer Security (the underlying tech behind HTTPS), and IPsec (Internet Protocol Security), which is used in VPNs. So for the most part, it’s pretty secure. Whether you’re comfortable using Chat / RCS depends on your security needs.

So what’s next?

Right now, support for RCS is limited to only a few carriers in the United States and elsewhere and even fewer devices, which means that most people can’t yet take advantage of it. Stay tuned to see what — and who — follows.