Spain Gives RCS Camp Some Hope
Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF), Orange Spain and Vodafone España S.A. jointly announced late Thursday that they will launch RCS-e services, such as instant messaging, video calling and file sharing, during the first half of 2012 on selected handsets. The services will then become available on a broader range of devices from the second half of the year.
That commercial services are near will come as a relief to the GSMA and its mobile operator members, which need new services to promote as their traditional voice revenues decline. It will also please the vendors that have been developing mobile core products to support RCS-e. (See Genband Supports RCS-e and Metaswitch Makes Its LTE Apps Move.)
"This is a clear commitment from all of the major operators in Spain that they will have a fully commercial launch of a Rich Communications service during the first half of this year," states GSMA senior director Graham Trickey in an email response to questions. "This announcement confirms that extensive interoperability testing is currently underway ... and that a range of devices will be available that have the necessary embedded capabilities," he adds.
But it's one small step in one market and as one leading industry analyst points out, there's a lot of work to do yet (in terms of technology, applications, business cases and inter-carrier relations) before RCS-e can be deemed a success in any way.
And there are plenty of naysayers who will take a lot of convincing before they'll agree that the whole RCS-e development isn't a complete waste of time and effort.
Critical next step for service providers
The key to RCS-e services, and the reason why rival operators have jointly developed and announced the applications, is that they work across multiple networks and devices. The GSMA has been promoting RCS, and helping to develop the specifications, using IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) capabilities as the foundations, for a couple of years and announced RCS 2.0 in September 2009. (See GSMA Updates Rich Comms Suite.)
But that didn't meet the immediate requirements of the major operators, which took control of the development process about a year ago and christened their version of the suite RCS-e. (See this GSMA press release.)
Of the operators involved, a core group of five -- Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), Orange (NYSE: FTE) (Orange), Telecom Italia (TIM) , Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF) and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), known as the G5 -- took primary control and have developed a slimmed-down version of RCS that should be easier to implement initially.
Those operators took control because they saw how quickly voice service revenues were declining, notes Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown, who interviewed 12 operators in mid-2011 about their views on and plans for RCS-e as part of a research project.
"What changed about a year ago is that the operators saw their voice revenues stagnating, so now they are fully behind RCS-e even if there isn't a hard and fast business case to back it up. It's strategic now. They need a foundation service, which is interoperable, fully tested and widely available, for the smartphone and all-IP network era," states Brown, who notes that VoLTE is the other main 'foundation' service. (See Operators Raise Voice Services on LTE .)
The development in Spain, says Brown, is quite significant, but not definitive. "It looks like a holding position. They all need an IMS core and need to make sure they can interconnect, so there will be a lot of work to do on best practice implementation processes. They are a bit behind schedule, but this provides some hope for the market. It's a signal, ahead of Mobile World Congress, to remind everyone that it's ongoing and still happening. There's a lot going on in the background," adds the analyst.
What's important now, notes Brown, is that the G5 operators "start to socialize the best practices with the rest of the industry so that other operators that also want to benefit from RCS-e capabilities don't feel left out."
Too little too late?
Are the G5 and GSMA wasting their time and energy though? There are many in the industry who believe RCS-e is going nowhere, while some, like industry commentator Dean Bubley, believe the whole process is already dead in the water.
In his predictions for this year, 2012 Winners and Losers, Bubley has RCS-e as the leading loser. "It was dead. It's now still dead, but shambling around like a zombie," he states.
Naturally, the GSMA takes a different view. "Change will always be met with skepticism," notes the Association's Graham Trickey. "Put simply, the market opportunity is huge, since this is a service aimed at the billions of mobile voice and SMS users. Consumers around the world have suffered from a fragmentation of communication mechanisms and RCS-e is about offering a ubiquitous, interoperable service by leveraging the investments made in the high-speed data networks by operators."
The imminent launch in Spain "should provide significant evidence to indicate that Rich Communications is a real service that major operators believe their customers desire. With the reality of live services, skepticism within the market will reduce," he adds.
In terms of markets, the GSMA expects Germany to be next.
"Several German network operators are planning the introduction of Rich Communication Suite services. The first devices with RCS-e embedded capabilities are expected to be available in spring," states Trickey.
"This will be followed by France and Italy later in 2012. South Korea -- SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) and LG Telecom (LG U+) -- has also committed to convert its existing Rich Communications services to the agreed RCS-e standard during the first half of 2012. We expect that at least 15 countries will have launched live interoperable RCS-e services by the end of 2013 in Europe, the Americas and Asia," states the GSMA man.
What's more important, though, is the commitment from the handset fraternity, notes Brown. "Getting IMS core interoperability is a real challenge, but the devices are the big hurdle. Android is the lead operating system platform for RCS-e because the vendors will be able to customize and embed the RCS client natively," says Brown. And while it's still possible that Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) might support RCS-e with its Windows Phone OS, Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s iOS does not support RCS-e. Any functionality on an iPhone would have to come from a bespoke app, he notes.
— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading