What is RCS Messaging, and Exactly How Does It Work?

Text messages — the communications tech we’ve known and loved since the 1990s — are starting to show their age. They just don’t perform the way we’re used to and come to expect in recent years. For example, they don’t support read receipts, group messaging, or the animated stickers everyone likes to trade on apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat. They rely on a cellular connection — and a signal — and a limit of just 160 characters to say what’s on your mind. That might sound amazingly restrictive, but old habits die hard. At last count, text messaging or SMS (Short Message Service), still gets plenty of love from the public with some 781 billion text messages sent every month and more than 9.3 trillion texts per year in the United States, according to 2017 numbers from Statistic Brain. According to Statista, the number of SMS messages sent in the United States actually jumped 15.8% from 2017 to 2018 to 2 trillion.

Despite the continuing popularity of SMS messaging, some people need more than it’s capable of offering. To make the service more valuable and competitive with popular, feature-rich messaging apps, smartphone manufacturers, carriers, and the cell phone industry’s governing agencies have developed the Rich Communication Services (RCS) protocol (otherwise called RCS Chat) which is designed as a modern take on texting that rolls features from Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp into one platform. The Chat interactive protocol allows the exchange of group chats, video, audio, and high-resolution images, that looks and functions like iMessage and other rich messaging apps. It facilitates read receipts and real-time viewing when someone is replying to your message. Your phone may already have it.

RCS arrives

Google’s customers in the U.K., France, and Mexico have been able to opt in to Chat instead of having to wait for carriers to roll it out — and now Android users in the U.S. can get in on the new Chat action as well. Last November, Google announced the rollout of RCS as Android’s primary texting platform for anyone who uses the Android Messages app, and many Android phones come with Android Messages installed. A partnership between Google and Samsung allows RCS features to work seamlessly between the Samsung Messages and Android Messages apps, the default SMS apps on their devices. Or, you can hop on to the Google Play Store to download Messages yourself.

The text messaging backstory

The invention of text messaging predates the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Palm Pilot. SMS was first proposed in 1982 for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a second-generation cell standard devised by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

The initial idea was to transmit texts via the signaling systems that controlled telephone traffic. ETSI engineers developed a framework that was both small enough to fit into the existing signaling paths (128 bytes, later improved to 160 seven-bit characters) and modular enough to support carrier management features like real-time billing, message rerouting (routing messages to a recipient other than the one specified by the user), and message blocking.

After nearly a decade of tinkering, SMS deployed commercially in December 1992 — a milestone that Neil Papworth, an engineer, marked by texting Merry Christmas to Vodafone customer Richard Jarvis. From then on, handset manufacturers including Nokia and carriers like Fleet Call (now Nextel) and BT Cellnet (now O2 UK) climbed aboard the messaging bandwagon. By 2010, nearly 20 years after the first text message, cell subscribers exchanged 6.1 trillion messages.

Despite the explosive growth of SMS, the tech didn’t evolve all that much from the 1990s. Even as phone form factors changed and Apple’s iPhone popularized the modern-day touchscreen smartphone, SMS remained the same — right down to the 160-character limit. RCS changes all that.

What is RCS?

what is rcs

Rich Communication Services (RCS) is the protocol that will eventually replace SMS, and it got off to a slow start. Formed by a group of industry promoters in 2007, it was brought into the GSM Association, a trade group, the next year, where it essentially languished for nearly a decade. In 2018, Google announced it had been working with major cell phone carriers worldwide to adopt the RCS protocol. The result is Chat, a protocol based on the RCS Universal Profile — a global standard for enacting RCS that lets subscribers from different carriers and countries communicate with each other.

Chat is evolving to look like iMessage and other messaging apps, but there are also some neat extras planned. Google has been working with businesses to add helpful features to Chat to improve communications, like branded informational messaging and sharing content like images, video clips, and gifs, or sending live updates about upcoming trips and boarding passes, and perhaps even allowing customers to select airline seats from within Android Messages. Chat is hardware agnostic, so it will work across multiple devices.

But Chat is missing one critical element: While the original RCS protocol allowed the implementation of client-to-server encryption, Chat does not offer end-to-end encryption like iMessage or Signal. Rather, it retains the same legal intercept standards as its SMS predecessor.

It’s possible that Chat could work on iOS, though Apple has yet to support the protocol. That’s because, with iMessage, many of the great RCS features are already available to iPhone users if they communicate with other Apple users. In the U.S., Apple users represent 50% of the smartphone market, and the company has communicated with GSMA about implementing RCS over the last couple of years, but nothing solid has emerged from those conversations so far.

Chat is a protocol

Chat is not designed to be just another Android messaging app: It’s the user-friendly name for the RCS protocol or RCS Universal Profile. Chat is available only on two apps: Android Messages and Samsung Messages. While this may seem a bit restrictive, most smartphone manufacturers ship with Android’s default messaging app, so you might already have access. There are a lot of moving pieces required for Chat to work. First, your carrier must support the protocol. You also need to have a device and messaging app that supports Chat. Finally, your recipient will need to have Chat too, otherwise, Chat messages revert to SMS.

In addition to bringing Android messaging into the 21st century with reading receipts, typing indicators, and sending and receiving high-resolution photos and videos, people can chat over Wi-Fi or mobile data, name group chats, add and remove participants from group chats, and more. You can enable RCS by launching the Android Messages app and switching on the chat features. Text messages will automatically flow through the new protocol if both parties have RCS enabled. But not everyone will, at least not yet.

Who supports Chat?

For nearly a decade, it was difficult to gain widespread support for the RCS protocol. While some carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile were on board fairly early, many manufacturers hesitated. Since RCS requires both a software and a network update, many manufacturers didn’t want to develop software to make their devices retroactively support the protocol. Google now services Chat for customers via its app, eliminating the need for carrier support, and Microsoft has also committed its support to the protocol. In the U.S., all of the major carriers have signaled their support for Chat, which means it should be fairly easy for mobile virtual network operators to get on board, when and if they decide to implement the standard.

Carrier updates

Last fall, the four major U.S. carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint — formed the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative, a joint venture to concentrate on standardizing RCS, working independently of Google.

  • Sprint: While Sprint has already rolled out RCS Universal Profile, and was the first to do so, you’ll need a supported device to take advantage of it — and you’ll need to be talking to someone with a supported device too. It’s now running the latest Universal Profile and all Sprint’s Android devices are RCS-capable for messaging to communicate with both Sprint customers and those on other supporting carriers.
  • T-Mobile: T-Mobile has begun rolling out RCS Universal Profile to some smartphones and has enabled RCS using an older version of the universal protocol. Subscribers can access features like 100MB file transfer, 100-member group chats, and typing indicators but not chatbots, sender verification, and business messaging featured on the newer versions. It’s supported on most Android phones manufactured in 2018 or later.
  • AT&T: AT&T has agreed to the RCS standard, but there’s still no definitive word on a rollout.
  • Verizon: Verizon is rolling out RCS to supported its phones. Most Verizon phones support RCS messaging with the Verizon Message Plus app, but because it is not the Universal Profile, it only works with other Verizon devices. Known devices that do support the universal profile include Google Pixel 3, 3a, and 4 series, Samsung Galaxy S9, S10, and S20 series, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 series.
  • Google Fi: Google Fi now supports RCS on all Fi phones.
  • US Cellular: US Cellular is running the latest universal profile so that all US Cellular Android devices can communicate via RCS messaging if the recipient supports the protocol.

Meantime, prepaid wireless carriers in the U.S. also got into the RCS act. Among the ones that now support the universal profile are: Boost Mobile, EcoMobile, Freedom Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, Straight Talk, Telcel América, Tiercel Wireless, Ting, Total Wireless, and Virgin Mobile.

Outside the U.S., telecom vendors in countries all over the world have adopted the RCS universal profile including Vodafone, Orange, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Docomo, and others serving Europe, Asia, Australia, Canada, and Latin America. Google, in conjunction with UK and French carriers, has fully rolled out RCS in those countries.

Where are we now?

Considering Google and the carriers are still scattered on how RCS will come together — or even if it will coalesce into some kind of cohesive whole — the new, improved RCS universe as an interconnected unified messaging system is still waiting to emerge. As of mid-2020, things seem to have gone quiet. RCS may be officially available from the network operators, but it is not available on all devices. According to the GSMA, there are 430 million active users with 13 million of them in Germany. Even though RCS has already been launched in many parts of the world, a connection between all these networks is not guaranteed. It looks customers will have more waiting to do before RCS comes to the forefront of consolidating messaging technologies.

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