Doug Thompson
The growing popularity of “over-the-top” (OTT) services such as Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger that compete directly with mobile operators’ traditional messaging services has resulted in much speculation about the future of SMS. Many industry experts predict a steady decline in person-to-person SMS traffic, pointing to competition from OTT players that provide more advanced—and often free—communication options.

Operators are turning to Rich Communication Suite (RCS) to enhance their messaging offerings in the face of this competition. Since RCS specifications require operators to have a fully deployed IMS core, some operators see this service as out of reach in the short term. New RCS-compliant solutions that provide enriched, in-demand features even without an IMS core can overcome this obstacle, enabling operators to combat the OTT threat and increase subscriber loyalty.

OTT Use on the Rise
OTT services are provided by third parties and carried “over the top” of operators’ networks, resulting in little to no revenue for the operator. These services are downloaded by smartphone users from app stores, such as Blackberry App World, Android Market, or iTunes. Providing in-demand features like video chat and group messaging, they are rapidly gaining both mind and market share among mobile subscribers, and operators worldwide are starting to feel the impact. While SMS use continues to increase globally, SMS volumes have begun to decline in mature markets, including the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, according to Wireless Intelligence.

Increased use of IP-based messaging and smartphones is likely to result in continued leveling off of person-to-person SMS volumes in mature markets. Currently, the United States has a smartphone penetration rate of nearly 47 percent, according to Fitch Ratings, which projects penetration of over 60 percent by the end of 2012. 

Fighting Back with RCS
RCS has emerged as the ideal IP-based solution to move operators to the next generation of messaging. Backed by the GSM Association (GSMA), RCS offers users an innovative set of features not available using today’s SMS and MMS technologies. For example, subscribers can conduct individual and group chat sessions and exchange images or videos during voice calls or chats. Voice or messaging sessions are launched from the subscriber’s address book, which contains traditional contact information for each contact (name, email, phone number) as well as enhanced information, including contacts’ current capabilities (chat, video/image share, and file transfer). RCS has the significant advantage of being cross-platform, unlike siloed OTT services that typically can be used only by those subscribers who have downloaded the relevant app to their device.

Telefónica SA, Orange Spain, and Vodafone España S.A. have planned commercial launches in Spain of an enhanced version of RCS known as RCS-e during the first half of 2012. Launches in Germany, France, and Italy are also planned in 2012, and trials are currently underway throughout the world. Leading handset vendors, including Nokia, Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Sony, and Huawei, have committed to embedding RCS-e on handsets. In addition, GSMA plans to launch a downloadable RCS-e app client that can be used on iOS and Android platforms.
Major device manufacturers, such as HTC, Nokia, Samsung, Huawei, Sony Ericsson, and ZTE, have committed to installing native RCS clients, and some handsets already include them. In addition, GSMA has issued an RFP for a downloadable RCS-e app client that can be used on iOS and Android platforms.

IMS: Costly and Complex
An operator’s IMS network provides the architectural framework to deliver RCS services. IMS was originally designed by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to standardize all-IP based wireless networks in a move toward fixed-mobile convergence. With an IMS network in place, many operators plan to include RCS services as a component of their voice over LTE (VoLTE) offerings. VoLTE is a standard for delivering voice and messaging services for LTE networks.

Though the number of IMS deployments is growing, many operators are taking a wait-and-see approach before making this costly investment. Preliminary results of a 2011 survey by industry analyst Alan Quayle find that globally, about 17 percent of operators completed IMS deployments in 2011. The survey projects that by 2017, 42 percent will have done so. The complexity of the technology as well as standards and integration issues are among the reasons operators are choosing to delay IMS implementation. A 2011 Infonetics survey identified integration with existing back-end systems as the most common barrier to IMS deployment.

Removing the IMS Roadblock
According to RCS specifications, the IMS network handles signaling, authorization, and session routing and setup. A device can connect to an operator’s IMS core in various ways, such as Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G, or another packet data network. Once connected, the device must register and authenticate prior to accessing the RCS application server. After the registration process is complete, the IMS core routes all RCS messages to the RCS application server and other IMS networks. Authentication, registration, and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) routing are all handled by different components of the IMS core.

Recognizing that not all operators plan to deploy IMS in the near-term, some vendors have developed RCS solutions that provide enriched communication features without the need for an IMS core. These solutions work by incorporating IMS functions into the RCS application server itself. As a result, operators can introduce RCS services today, even without an IMS infrastructure, enabling them to provide subscribers with new, in-demand features.

interop-graphIMS functions—including signaling, authorization, and session routing and setup—are incorporated directly into some RCS application servers. This enables operators introduce RCS service before deploying an IMS core.

Operators comparing RCS options should consider the following:

• Is the solution RCS-compliant or “RCS-like”? Some solutions provide similar features but are not fully compliant with RCS specifications. Choosing an RCS-compliant solution ensures interoperability between mobile operators, enabling subscribers to communicate with anyone, regardless of network.

• Will the solution seamlessly integrate with an IMS core in the future? Operators choosing to delay the deployment of an IMS infrastructure should ensure that the RCS server can easily integrate with IMS if and when it adds this to its network infrastructure.

• Does the solution provide complete backwards compatibility with legacy SMS and MMS technologies? Interworking with SMS and MMS is important so that subscribers can launch all messaging sessions from the RCS client on their device, regardless of whether the recipients have RCS compatibility.

• What client options are available? Choosing a server that seamlessly integrates with any RCS-compliant client gives the operator the flexibility to choose one or more clients that best support its business objectives and subscriber preferences.

• What are the available deployment options? For operators that wish to enter the market quickly, a hosted solution provides the most efficient and economical means of deploying an RCS solution.

Operators can combat the growing threat of OTT services by offering subscribers new, feature-rich communication options with RCS. An RCS-compliant solution that does not require a fully deployed IMS core lets operators to go to market quickly, ensuring they remain relevant and maintain customer loyalty.

Posted by Janine E. Mooney, Editor

February 22, 2012