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Reader Forum: RCS – Gaining traction, but misunderstood

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reader Forum section. In an attempt to broaden our interaction with our readers we have created this forum for those with something meaningful to say to the wireless industry. We want to keep this as open as possible, but we maintain some editorial control to keep it free of commercials or attacks. Please send along submissions for this section to our editors at: [email protected]

Though mobile users have embraced traditional messaging services, today’s converging communication environment offers a wide range of alternatives. In many ways, subscriber loyalty is shifting from the mobile network operator to the device itself and the capabilities it offers. Price-sensitive customers are embracing “over-the-top” services like Skype, WhatsApp and iMessage, which offer enhanced features that SMS and MMS lack. In addition, subscribers no longer view different media as separate services but instead as a set of integrated communication features.

A growing number of operators are looking to Rich Communication Suite to enhance their core service offering and to expand the capabilities of legacy messaging services. Although RCS is gaining traction among operators worldwide, several misconceptions persist about this next-generation communication service. A better understanding of RCS capabilities and requirements will enable operators to evaluate their messaging strategies as they enhance their overall service offerings.

RCS today
Championed by the GSM Association, RCS provides additional features that extend the capabilities of SMS and MMS. The current commercial version, RCS-enhanced (RCS-e), was designed to reduce time to market. Though RCS-e clients vary, they all utilize an enhanced address book from which users can initiate all communication. In addition to traditional contact information (name, number and e-mail address), the address book identifies each contact’s capabilities – such as chat, video share, image share and file transfer.

With RCS Release 5, subscribers will also benefit from features like the display of each contact’s presence information, including current status, location and available services. This release also extends RCS communication capabilities to tablets and PCs in addition to mobile phones, preserving communication activity and enabling subscribers to move from one device to another during a conversation. In addition, RCS Release 5 features backward compatibility with SMS and MMS, enabling RCS users to communicate with any mobile phone, regardless of whether the device has an RCS client.

Initially, five of the world’s largest mobile operators – Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Vodafone – announced plans for 2012 RCS-e launches in Spain, France, Germany and Italy. Launches are also planned in The Netherlands and South Korea in 2012. In addition, numerous operators in North America and China are trialing RCS, while operators throughout the world are evaluating the service.

With RCS gaining acceptance worldwide, it is imperative for operators to fully evaluate this communication option and define their next-generation messaging strategy or risk losing subscribers and revenue. In doing so, operators should understand the following key points about RCS and today’s messaging environment:

Offering RCS is truly necessary – OTT services are a serious threat: The latest research indicates that OTT services are having a dramatic impact on operators’ bottom lines. In fact, third-party messaging services cost operators $8.7 billion in SMS revenues in 2010 and $13.9 billion in 2011, according to technology analyst Ovum. In addition, OTT messaging services could cost operators $41.9 billion in lost SMS revenues between 2012 and 2016, an August 2012 MobileSQUARED white paper concluded. The white paper notes that 79% of operators surveyed in May and June 2012 identify OTT clients on smartphones as a threat to traditional SMS- and voice-based services. In markets without unlimited plans or with high per-message SMS/MMS pricing, subscribers may find OTT services particularly appealing.

Operators can launch RCS without an IMS core: Both the RCS and RCS-e specifications require operators to have an IP Multimedia Subsystem core within their network, which requires 12 to 18 months to implement. However, fully compliant RCS solutions have been developed that enable operators to launch RCS without IMS. This approach enables operators to introduce RCS immediately and seamlessly implement IMS if and when they choose to do so.

RCS does not require operators to have a next-generation network: Though many operators are currently focused on next-generation network deployments, a next-generation infrastructure is not required to introduce RCS. In fact, any data network, including 3G or LTE, can support this service. That means that operators can reap the benefits of RCS today, independent of their network buildout timeframe.

Existing handsets can support RCS: Nine of the top 10 handset OEMs have committed to embedding RCS handsets on mobile devices in 2012, according to the GSMA/Gartner Research. However, operators needn’t wait for these devices to penetrate the market before introducing RCS. Downloadable clients are available that make it possible to use RCS on existing handsets. In addition, feature phones support RCS – meaning that operators can offer this service to their entire subscriber base rather than only smartphone users.

Operators can deploy RCS cost effectively: Both turnkey and hosted RCS solutions are currently available. For operators who wish to minimize required ongoing resources and up-front capital, a hosted solution can be a cost-effective approach.

Even though OTT services are already common, it’s not too late for RCS: Though OTT services are growing in popularity, they typically lack interoperability – meaning that only users within each user community can communicate. Because RCS offers full compatibility with SMS and MMS, RCS users can communicate with any subscriber using either a feature phone or a smartphone, regardless of whether the device has an RCS client. This capability, combined with OEM support and new features that are in demand by subscribers, is likely to fuel acceptance of RCS in the marketplace.

RCS is ready for deployment today: Operators risk significant revenue loss – and indeed face becoming simply a dumb pipe – if they fail to develop a near-term strategy to enhance their services. As the industry-chosen solution to compete with OTT services, RCS represents a promising service that can help operators preserve their messaging revenues and retain customer loyalty. RCS already has the support of the world’s leading operators, and numerous deployments are underway.

Conclusion
With the popularity of alternative communication options growing at an unprecedented rate, operators’ traditional messaging revenues – and subscriber loyalty – are suffering. In addition to extending the capabilities of SMS and MMS, RCS offers interoperability across platforms and device types, as well as compatibility with legacy technologies – features that OTT options cannot provide. Introducing RCS today gives operators the opportunity to solidify subscriber loyalty while providing users with the next-generation, advanced messaging features they seek.

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