Everything you need to know about Rich Communication Services (RCS)

This robust messaging standard will super charge your text messages. Here's why you want it.

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Credit: Florence Ion

I’m one of those rare unicorns that still uses her phone to talk with people, but not everyone uses their phone like me. These days, most people communicate primarily through text messages and messaging applications, like WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, or Facebook Messenger.

Three years ago, Forrester Research found that about six billion text messages are sent every day in the U.S., resulting in about 8.6 trillion text messages sent a year—and that number has almost certainly gone up since then. But texting is built on an SMS protocol that dates back to before cellular networks could carry Internet data. It’s outdated, and over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps have surpassed it in functionality, if not in raw numbers. The carriers have realized that if they're going to keep texting alive, it has got to evolve. They've started adopting technology called Rich Communication Services (RCS), which leverages data connectivity to deliver next-generation messaging features.

So, what is RCS?

RCS, or Rich Communications Services, is essentially enhanced SMS and MMS. To get it, you need your carrier to support it, your device to support it, and a compatible app. It works with text, images, and video, and you can use it to send both individual or group text messages. You can also use it to share your location. T-Mobile is the first carrier in the U.S. to fully deploy this technology, which it’s branding as Advanced Messaging

In some cases, RCS’s capabilities expand beyond messaging. The standard could work with your contacts app, for instance, so you can see who else in your phonebook supports the technology. It also enables you to share media and your location even while you’re engaged in a telephone conversation.

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. 

How is it related to T-Mobile’s Advanced Messaging?

The GSM Association, an association of mobile operators and the group behind major trade shows like Mobile World Congress, set the standard back in 2007. It’s since been rebranded as Joyn.

T-Mobile’s chosen to call it Advanced Messaging, however. Frankly, that’s better branding for the technology. It sounds more capable, and most consumers probably won’t know what Joyn is, but they know what “messaging” is. 

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. (C’mon Verizon!) 

Which phones are compatible with T-Mobile’s Advanced Messaging?

Thus far, only the Samsung Galaxy Grand Prime offers Advanced Messaging right out of the box. T-Mobile promised the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S6 will be the first to get the compatible software update, followed by “nearly a dozen more” devices later this year. “We expect it will be a standard feature on new smartphones sold,” wrote T-Mobile’s Chief Technology Officer, Neville Ray.

Why do I want RCS over what I’ve already got?

When RCS was first announced, there was some debate about whether this technology was necessary, given the proliferation of over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Viber. The argument was that RCS was unnecessary, because those OTT apps already did everything it would. “They’ve launched services no better than [those of] OTT players,” OpenCloud’s Mark Windle told The Register in 2013. “RCS is bringing virtually nothing.” 

Windle argued in favor of OTT apps, citing the idea that the companies behind the apps could innovate faster than the carriers. He had a point, but for the user, RCS is better than OTT apps specifically because it’s tied to your phone number. You won’t need to download a specific app or create a new account somewhere else just to use it, like you would with Facebook Messenger. It’s a boon for the carriers, too, who make money off of selling you unlimited text messaging plans. Those other apps merely use up your data and offer no real revenue avenue for the carrier.

Which carriers support it?

MetroPCS was actually the first U.S. carrier to support RCS under the brand name Joyn, though it required a specific app to utilize it—that might change now that T-Mobile, which has since purchased MetroPCS, has launched Advanced Messaging. Sprint has been a supporter of RCS since 2013, but the capability is only available through the Messaging Plus app. Verizon and AT&T have signed on for RCS, but haven’t yet implemented it, though Verizon noted that its Messages app offers similar functionality.

Will those other carriers support RCS in the future?

Let’s certainly hope so. It’d offer more options for sending MMS to friends because you won’t be tied down by size restrictions. It’d also be helpful for file sharing, so you won’t have to upload a photo or PDF to a service like Dropbox to share it with someone else. With RCS, you can simply send it as an attachment in a text message.

Is it compatible with Apple’s iMessages?

Unfortunately, no. iMessage is Apple’s own proprietary service, and Apple’s the one that runs the messaging servers. There’s nothing stopping Apple from making its Messages app compatible with RCS, though it has little incentive to do so. If it did, and your carrier supported RCS, then your iPhone-toting friends could finally be able to see when you’re typing. But that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. 

This story, "Everything you need to know about Rich Communication Services (RCS)" was originally published by Greenbot.

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