Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T have all jumped on the RCS bandwagon in one way or another. Sprint has gone all-in with Google behind them and you have probably seen people talking about RCS recently. Both are very cool things — Sprint and Google using new standards that make text messaging better than ever and people being interested and talking about it.

But like all things, it helps when you have a basic understanding of what people are talking about. There's plenty of information about RCS out there on the internet, but let's try to sort it all out in one place and talk about what RCS is and why it matters to everyone.

What is RCS?

In a nutshell, RCS is a set of communication standards for SMS, MMS and calling that will make text messages look and feel more like Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger.

In 2007 a group of telecommunication industry companies founded the Rich Communication Suite industry initiative to use new technologies to create inter-operator communication services based on IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). Text messages and phone calls generally work well, but they're pretty bland and don't make use of the full capabilities of the network they're being sent on. They had three primary goals:

  • Use a better contacts list that included things like more information about your people, if they were available and if they have seen the message you've sent.
  • Build a better messaging system that enables extras like instant chat, emojis and sharing data between the people participating.
  • Support enhanced calls with features like video calling and data sharing in real time.

That sounds like things your phone already does (and does well) without any new communications standard, but the secret sauce here is that this is all part of your phone service and will work the same way on any phone that can call or send texts — which is all of them.

RCS makes your texting better with rich messages and a great real-time experience with the person you're texting.

The GSM Association (the folks who run Mobile World Congress every year) thought it was a great idea, too, and formed the RCS Steering committee a year later to push the idea of supporting this to phone carriers all over the world. They've since refined and expanded the standards and have been releasing them under the RCS blanket (RCS now stands for Rich Communication Services) for a while. The technical parts of the standards have adapted and changed, but the core goals remain the same: making phone service have a better way to communicate without adding anything additional from any app stores or carrier download sections.

Unfortunately, there has been a mixed response from carriers and companies making things that connect to them like phones, tablets, and computers.

Who uses RCS?

A lot of cellular carriers all over the world use RCS, but not all of them use all of it and provide a service you can use with everyone else. For this to work the way it was designed, all the carriers involved and all the devices being used have to support all of the standards. Of course, companies usually only support what makes them money or what they are forced to support and RCS is no exception.

The GSMA has a handy list of which companies support which parts of the RCS standards that they publish online. Have a look at it (it's a .pdf file).

RCS launches and support (as of October 2016)

Remember, this is a tool to make others see how popular RCS is in order to entice them to support it. That means it doesn't tell the whole story. So we're going to.

Sprint supports the RCS Universal Profile, and nobody else in the states does.

For starters, since we're based in the U.S., let's talk about Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. Only Sprint supports the full Universal Profile for RCS. (In Canada, Rogers has launched the same thing.) This means it works the way you and I think it would work when they say they support it. Sprint's network supports all of the standards the GSMA has put out, and Android phones sold on their network since adoption have the hardware needed to send and receive better texts and calls. Software support is provided for existing Android phones — Google Messenger now supports everything you need here if you're using Sprint — and will be included on all new Androids sold after November 2016.

T-Mobile's RCS support is limited to in-network messages sent using an Advanced Messaging capable app. Metro PCS had full network support for RCS as of the 2012 spec (they were the first in the U.S.) but further data since being acquired by T-Mobile isn't available in full detail. To me, that means it probably doesn't support the latest RCS standards network wide.

AT&T's RCS support is limited to in-network video calls and in-network messages sent through an advanced messaging app.

Verizon supports RCS, but not officially in any way that the GSMA feels is compliant. That's not really surprising because this is Verizon we're talking about and they don't like to play nice with anyone until they have to.

Carrier network support is more important than device level support, but you still need both. Android and iOS both support what you need.

So in the United States, we can pretty much say only Sprint supports RCS the way we want it to be supported. That's awesome for Sprint — they are totally on the right track here lately in a lot of ways — but pretty useless if the people you're talking to are on another network that isn't supporting the RCS initiative. Worldwide, we see a handful of carriers — India's Jio, Claro and Telcel in the Americas, and Orange in Europe fully supporting the standards while plenty of other networks support it partially or are getting ready to support it.

More: Google's iMessage competitor isn't Allo, it's texting

On the device side, Android, iOS, and Windows 10 all can support the full RCS standards when using a capable app. Chrome and Mac OS don't offer the same support, which puts another hurdle in front of RCS — Apple would rather keep using iMessage because it works on MacBooks, too. But honestly, device support isn't as big of a problem as network support and even Apple would quickly offer an iMessage replacement that uses RCS if people wanted it and were using it.

That means worldwide, a whole lot of people have access to RCS. And a whole lot of people don't have access. For things to work the way the Rich Communication Suite industry initiative intended, everyone needs to support it.

Why is this important for Android?

This is the easy part. RCS is important to Google (and all of their partners) because iMessage exists.

RCS can make all your texting as good as iMessage.

It's cool to hate on Apple, but if you've ever used iMessage you know what I mean here. Combined with FaceTime, iMessage already offers exactly the things RCS is trying to achieve. Voice and video calls are simple and messages are rich with great media sharing and read receipts and typing indicators and everything else. And it uses SMS in tandem with regular data to do it. It's the best SMS app you'll ever use until RCS becomes ubiquitous (if it ever does.)

Google knows this and they are doing everything they can to get carriers to adopt RCS. Including buying Jibe in February 2016. Jibe is a service that carriers and phone makers and everyone else involved can deploy that brings everything RCS offers in one compliant package. AT&T or O2 or anyone else can use Jibe to make phones on their network send and receive messages and calls that offer the same features as iMessage does with anyone else on a carrier that supports RCS.

Since about 80% of the phones in the world use Android and can't use iMessage, this is a big deal.

Google offers Hangouts as a way to have rich messages and calls through SMS and IP connections from your Android, but to get full support you need to be using Project Fi or a Google Voice number. That doesn't help most people, and it seems that Google is focusing Hangouts more as a corporate tool (and it's pretty excellent for that) while they build full RCS support into Google Messaging, along with their own rich messaging client (that doesn't tie into your SMS) in Allo as a capable substitute to WhatsApp.

iMessage is probably never coming to Android so RCS is Google's best hope to bring a great experience to every phone.

They've got Sprint on board. As mentioned, Sprint fully supports everything about RCS, and we're pretty sure they will support future enhancements to the standards to remain RCS complaint. That's awesome, but having AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon out of the picture makes it a lot less awesome. You can be sure Google is courting the other players in the States as well as the rest of the world to get on board along with the GSMA, and if it can happen we all get a better experience.

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