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RCS: What It Is and Why You Might Want It

A lot of people have become bored with SMS messaging, and the tech industry is very aware of it. While services such as Apple’s iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and the WhatsApp app allow you to add photos, GIFs and videos to your messages, they are not universal solutions – for example, you can’t send a WhatsApp message if your correspondent uses Facebook Messenger. The answer – or so Google and other companies are hoping – is Rich Communications Services or RCS.

What is it?RCS is a new online protocol that was chosen for adoption by the GSM Association(CSMA) in 2008 and is meant to replace the current texting standard SMS (Short Message Service), which has been around since the 1990s. The GMSA represents a wide variety of organizations in the mobile industry, including device, software, and Internet companies. Naturally, given all those players, it took a while to come to an agreement, and so it wasn’t until 2016 that the GSMA was able to come up with something resembling a standard.

How is RCS better than SMS?RCS will add a lot more multimedia capabilities to your messaging. Besides the usual texts (plain and fancy), it will make it simple to send GIFs, high-resolution still photos, and videos. It will let you know if the person you’re texting is available and can send you a receipt to prove they received your message. It will allow you to create longer messages and attach larger files. It also enables much better group messaging than SMS can handle. In other words, it can make standard text messaging look and work a lot like iMessage.

As of this writing, support for RCS has been promised by 55 carriers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and a slew of secondary companies; 11 hardware manufacturers such as Samsung, Lenovo, and LG (but not Apple), and both Microsoft and Google.

Is anyone using RCS yet?Google has been a significant backer of RCS and even offers back-end services to carriers to help them quickly spin up support for it. But at the end of the day, it’s the carriers that are responsible for launching and supporting it. The big recent news is that Verizon is beginning its rollout of the service, but only in a minimal way to start. Currently, Verizon only offers it on Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL phones – and even then, it hasn’t hit all those customers yet. But because Verizon is supporting the standard, it will work with any other phone that supports it.

Why are people saying it’s not secure?One issue that a lot of security specialists are pointing out is that RCS – and, therefore, apps such as Chat – lack the end-to-end encryption available in some current messaging tools such as WhatsApp. End-to-end encryption means that the message is impenetrable to everyone – including the app vendor and the network provider – except the message sender and receiver. If you want to text someone with no chance that the authorities will ever see it, Chat / RCS is not the way. 

On the other hand, RCS does have all the standard security protocols, including Transport Layer Security (the underlying tech behind HTTPS), and IPsec (Internet Protocol Security), which is used in VPNs. So, for the most part, it’s pretty secure. Whether you’re comfortable using Chat / RCS depends on your security needs.

What’s next?Right now, support for RCS is limited to only a few carriers and even fewer devices, which means that most people can’t yet take advantage of it. Stay tuned to see what – and who – follows.

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