RCS now well on the way to replacing SMS

Offering the text functions of SMS, but with an array of additional communication and multimedia capabilities, the year ahead will see RCS start to replace SMS as the standard means of non-voice telecommunication. With the commercial implications of that in mind, attendees gathered at the GSMA Network 2020 seminar yesterday, ‘A New Global Platform for Conversations, Chatbots & Commerce’, to discuss progress so far and consider the opportunities ahead.

Opening speaker Petja Heimbach, VP of Next Generation Communications at Deutsche Telekom, likened the upgrade to RCS the jump from black-and-white television to colour; that “once in a while, people learn there is more.” That moment has arrived in messaging, and offers to diversify communication immensely. RCS has the capacity to enable a very wide variety of services, and has already begun to do so – sectors previously showing relatively little interest in telecommunications are finding uses for RCS to improve their businesses markedly.   The GSMA’s new report titled ‘Messaging as a Platform – The Operator Opportunity’ outlines how operators can play a central role in the future of Messaging as a Platform (MaaP) and considers how operators can migrate traffic from pre-existing SMS Application–to-Person (A2P) services towards enriched RCS based messaging. MaaP combines advanced messaging with standardised interfaces to chatbots and plugins that create a richer experience for consumers and allow businesses to realise the application-to-person potential of IP messaging.

Testament to the range of business applications made possible by RCS is the diversity of our panel. A solution bringing together representatives from Britain’s most successful trains company Virgin Trains, to Walgreens, the largest commercial pharmacy company in the western world, clearly offers an unusual breadth of application. As Mr Heimbach explained, perhaps the key achievement of the last year has been the agreement of Universal Profile, the new standard specification which allows the industry to design advanced communications to a set of agreed technical standards. This achievement “opened up the ecosystem”; the challenge for the coming year will be to build on the success of that to meet the growing demand for RCS in the private sector.

Head of RCS at Google, Amir Sarhangi, echoed the importance of interconnectivity. Google’s Android Messages launched last year, and users can now upgrade at any time. Scaling over the last six months has been swift, with more than 30 operators having adopted Google’s platform. As Mr Sarhangi pointed out, 30% of SMS messages in 2017 will be sent by businesses to consumers; the commercial demand for direct telecommunications by text is clear. So, however, are the limits of SMS. Google’s research found that businesses complained of a range of barriers to success, from being unable to track the performance of initiatives via analytics, to users being unable to distinguish between SMS messages intended for them personally and spam. Mr Sarhangi was clear that the additional capabilities of RCS allow for solutions to a range of such limitations, and that Google’s research has demonstrated significant enthusiasm among consumers for the benefits afforded them thus far through business-to-consumer messaging.

Steve Gooder, Head of Digital Technology at Virgin Trains, described how his team had been able to deliver clear improvements in customer satisfaction through RCS pilot schemes. Virgin have recently been undertaking trials of a method of crowd control, by which a proportion of passengers are alerted to boarding information via mobile slightly earlier than is advertised on the main display. Passengers therefore proceed to departure in a more staggered way, allowing for a less congested experience for all, and those receiving the alert are offered a chance to navigate service options en route. Passengers are able to locate their seats, select entertainment options, verify their boarding pass and browse catering facilities as they make their way to the train, all through RCS.

Throughout the discussion, further examples of the promise of RCS were explored.  Kartik Subramanian, Director of Mobile Product Management, APIs and Innovation at Walgreens Boots Alliance, described a scheme by which Walgreens have been able to reduce the time needed for customers to process prescriptions by phone from ten minutes to ten seconds, by accessing services through an app instead of by voice call. Walgreens have boosted efficiency and sales already by allowing consumers to interact with the brand in this way, but Mr Subramanian stressed that the current “can only take us so far – there are other use cases, for example the use we could make of photos, which the current protocol of SMS does not permit.” Walgreens have service designs in place that would allow users to avoid the need for a specific app entirely and seek repeat prescriptions, for example, simply by communicating by image with the company.  Summit Tech’s President and Co-Founder Alido Di Giovanni expounded on the uses of enriched calling and chatbots in connected vehicles, arguing that with these allowing far greater direct communication with businesses, operators will need to consider whether they are content to remain “the man in the middle” – reminding the audience that one operator now consider entertainment part of their core business, “if you think you’re just a communications company, you may not survive this evolutionary shift from black-and-white to colour TV.”

As Virgin Trains’ Steve Gooder concluded in his presentation, “we’re truly excited about this, we think it’s a huge opportunity – we just need you guys to go ahead and help us deliver it.” Operators have much to gain here, and the opportunities are clear – with such a broad base of demand for the possibilities or RCS, the industry has its work cut out for the year ahead. It will be an eventful one.