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

Text messages — the communications tech we’ve used since the 1990s — are showing their age. They don’t perform the way we now want them to: They don’t support encryption, 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 limit you to just 160 characters. Despite those restrictions, old habits die hard. 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. In 2019, that number held steady at 2 trillion messages exchanged.

Despite the popularity of SMS messaging, some people need more than it’s capable of providing. 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 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 protocol allows the exchange of group chats, video, audio, and high-resolution images, plus read receipts and real-time viewing, and looks and functions like iMessage and other rich messaging apps.

Using RCS

Google now offers RCS chat worldwide via its Android Messages app to all users who install and use it as a default texting app. With Google’s rollout of RCS as Android’s primary texting platform for Android Messages, many Android phones already 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. You can also 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 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 and carriers 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.

What is RCS?

what is rcs

Rich Communication Services (RCS) has been promoted as the protocol that will eventually replace SMS, but it got off to a slow start and is still moving at a glacial pace, as its protocol ages. Formed by a group of industry promoters in 2007, it was brought into the GSM Association, a trade group, the next year, where it languished for a decade. In 2018, Google announced it had been working with major cell phone carriers worldwide to adopt RCS. The result is Chat, a protocol based on the RCS Universal Profile — a global standard for implementing 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 were also some neat extras. 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, designed to work across multiple devices. It’s possible that Chat could work on iOS, but Apple, which accounts for half the U.S. phone market, does not support the protocol.

Chat is a protocol

Chat is not just another Android messaging app: It’s the 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 restrictive, most smartphone manufacturers ship with Android’s default messaging app. There are a lot of moving parts 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 read receipts, typing indicators, and sending and receiving high-resolution photos and videos, RCS lets people chat over Wi-Fi or mobile data, name group chats, and add and remove participants from group chats. 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.

Who supports Chat?

Some carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile climbed on board fairly early, but 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. As a result, Google services Chat for customers via its app, eliminating the need for carrier support, and Microsoft has also committed to the protocol. In the U.S., all of the major carriers support Chat, which means it should be fairly easy for mobile virtual network operators to implement the standard.

Cross-carrier initiative dies

In 2019, 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, independently of Google. Light Reading, a platform serving the telco industry, now reports that Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have killed this joint venture. Verizon stated, “the owners of the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative decided to end the joint venture effort. However, the owners remain committed to enhancing the messaging experience for customers including growing the availability of RCS.” While the joint effort is over, carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon have kept their hats in the ring. In March 2021, T-Mobile inked a deal with Google to make Messages the default messaging app on all its Android devices.

Where we are now

RCS remains a hard slog as the platform ages with challenges of its own. Free messaging is already the norm, and the top-level apps have already run away with the show. While the original RCS protocol allowed the implementation of client-to-server encryption, Chat does not currently offer end-to-end encryption like iMessage or Signal. Google has announced it is beginning to enable end-to-end encryption on top of Messages, but only in beta form. RCS also lacks cross-device support for laptops, desktops, tablets, and watches — products that don’t have a phone number.

As it stands, US Cellular is running the latest universal profile, which does not feature encryption, so that all US Cellular Android devices can communicate via RCS messaging if the recipient supports the protocol, while Google Fi supports RCS on all Fi phones. Prepaid wireless carriers in the U.S. also joined the RCS act. Among the companies that now feature the universal profile are Boost Mobile, EcoMobile, Freedom Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, Straight Talk, Telcel América, Tiercel Wireless, Ting, Total Wireless, and Virgin Mobile.

Outside of the United States, many worldwide telecom companies have joined the RCS universal profile model, including Vodafone, Orange, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Docomo, and others serving Europe, Asia, Australia, Canada, and Latin America. Along with the U.K. and French carriers, Google has fully rolled out RCS in those countries.

The question remains whether RCS will emerge in a timely manner as a default standard the way SMS did. Considering the one step forward, two steps back nature of the progress over the past 10 years, it’s hard to be optimistic.

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