Rich Communication Suite 2009

Let this not detract from the conference, however, as it was an excellent event. Informa had managed to gather a broad range of speakers, representing operators and vendors. Best of all, a wide spectrum of opinion was in evidence, making for a stimulating and, at times, provocative conference. But first, some basics. For those unfamiliar with RCS, here's a simple definition from the functional specification administered by the GSM Association:

"*The Rich Communication Suite (RCS) Initiative is an effort of a group of industry players for the rapid adoption of mobile applications and services providing an interoperable, convergent, rich communication experience. The RCS Initiative includes network operators, network and device vendors.

The RCS Initiative is using an iterative, agile methodology to deliver a consistent feature set, implementation guidelines, example use cases as well as demonstrations and trials around interoperable reference implementations based on profiling of existing standards and specifications.

The RCS Initiative work is divided into a sequence of phased efforts published as releases. The RCS Release 1 effort focuses on a core service set comprising of enhanced phonebook, enhanced messaging and enriched call."

*GSMA, RCS R1 Functional Description.

Essentially, RCS is a global initiative to provide an enhanced user experience, available via mobile and fixed client applications, such as can be embedded by manufacturers in mobile handsets. The core value proposition includes:

  • Enhanced phonebook
    • Contact presence and status
  • Enriched voice communications
    • Multi-media content
  • Enhanced messaging
    • Conversational experience

Release 1 of the RCS specifications is complete and is being used in reference trials, particularly in France. We learnt about a co-ordinated effort by Bouygues, SFR and Orange to manage a multi-operator trial, which included such initiatives as a joint RFP.

Release 2 was finished in June 2009 and adds fixed client support, extending the enhanced experience across the multiple devices that a user is supposed to possess these days - rather like taking the basic messaging client software that resides on mobile phones today and installing it on a PC. Or, perhaps more to the point, the reverse of taking Skype and putting it on a mobile. All of this is supposed to galvanise user interaction and to stimulate an increase in person-to-person communication, capitalising on social networking trends. The idea is that if the enhanced client is available in the handset (or other device), users will naturally gravitate towards this rather than towards OTT solutions and hence stimulate an increase in traffic in mobile networks. Provided that it is easy to use, of course!

Since pricing policies can be created such that Instant Messaging can be billed in a comparable way to SMS, mobile network operators will benefit. This will help MNOs avoid the dreaded fate of becoming bit-pipes. Critical to the entire effort is interoperability between operators: to ensure the widest possible addressable market, users must be able to send messages and determine the status of contacts from outside their own network.

There are various estimates for the opportunity afforded by RCS. These range from extrapolation of mobile messaging service growth (e.g. France), through to direct experiences based on the introduction of interoperability between MNOs in initial service launches (e.g. South Korea). However, the current model from Infonetics suggests a significant market opportunity, based on several key factors:

  • Total number of 3G subscribers globally
    • Expected to reach 1 billion by 2010
  • Levy of a basic service fee for RCS capabilities
  • Increased service usage, generating higher ARPU
  • Reduced churn through compelling service offer

All of these were questioned throughout the conference, which made it a more interesting experience than many such events. Two clear sets of opinion were represented:

  • Those for whom RCS is a clear strategic opportunity
  • Those who think RCS will have marginal or minimal impact

There is another interesting angle in that RCS is also seen as a key instrument in driving IMS service usage, since the specifications leverage core capabilities that are delivered via IMS. Indeed, a speaker remarked that the core capabilities of IMS are the building blocks on which RCS will be built. In the face of sometimes withering scepticism from the industry regarding IMS, some might interpret this as desperation on the part of IMS advocates to ensure that the IMS initiative doesn't fail. But, we (that is, RCL and Moriana) think that RCS can be seen separately from IMS. Our research (the Moriana IMS and RCS Survey) has shown that IMS is happening and indeed gathering pace in the industry: it doesn't need RCS in order to succeed. It will succeed because, by definition, it is the next generation architecture for mobile and fixed networks with millions of customers, but that is an argument for another article. RCS, however, does depend on IMS, so IMS adoption needs to be widespread before it can succeed - but if RCS fails, then it will not be because of IMS.

Instead, if RCS fails, it will fail because of three factors:

•Lack of penetration of mobile clients in handsets
•Lack of inter-operator interoperability
•User apathy
The first two points were addressed by the conference. First, it is expected that RCS clients will start to ship as default software loads in many handsets during 2010, so they could quickly become ubiquitous amongst 3G handsets.

Secondly, there are already solutions being co-ordinated between MNOs - and, perhaps significantly, there are clearing house solutions being proposed that would ease the co-ordination of roaming for RCS between operators (the conference had an extremely good presentation from just such a provider, XConnect. It was good to see an operator from the wholesale side of the ecosystem present at this conference, and we hope that this continues. Such events need to involve all relevant stakeholders).
Just as the SMS interoperability questions were resolved, so surely will the RCS issues, provided that the underlying infrastructure is also equally available. As noted previously, Moriana found that all operators interviewed had plans to deploy IMS, were in the process of doing so, or had already deployed a solution, but this doesn't say anything about interoperability or peering between such networks. As in the early days of VoIP, operators need to ensure that they do not remain as islands for long.

Of course, there are other limiting factors, such as battery life expectancy, user interface, billing arrangements and authentication, but these are really minor issues which one would expect to be resolved through technological enhancements and product life cycles. For example, it seems to be accepted that authentication should depend on existing SIM registration procedures rather than login, which appears eminently sensible

And, there were some great reports from the field. SK Telecom, leading the way as so often, reported a significant increase in mobile Instant Messaging (Mobile IM), once interoperability between South Korean MNOs had been achieved. Mobile IM, in this scenario becomes a key weapon to stimulate growth in the face of saturated SMS markets where growth has all but disappeared. There has been debate recently about Metcalfe's law (see http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/networks/metcalfes-law-right-wrong), but the fundamental point remains undamaged - the value of the network increases with the number of users. By ensuring interoperability, you increase the network of available users and hence the potential value. Whether it grows at the square of the number of users, or by the log doesn't much matter to this author (though I am sure it does to others): the value increases.

An important insight came from other presenters: it's not just technical interoperability that matters; it also requires a business-orientated approach. The market must be developed, there must be joint promotions of the solutions, and offers must be launched at the same time. One wonders whether, in the interests of stimulating the market, template RFx documents shouldn't be placed in the public domain, so that operators can try to short-cut the decision making process, but perhaps that is a pipedream!

The marketing of RCS is also an important issue. MNOs can't afford to wait for users to discover the utility of RCS in a serendipitous manner, pace SMS. They need it to be successful straight out of the box, assuming the interop issues have been resolved in a particular market. A speaker from Orange outlined a five point plan to achieve this:

  • A clear customer value proposition
  • Interop and service continuity with legacy services
    • I.e. don't exclude non-RCS enabled handsets from the community
  • Clear pricing
  • Great user experience
    • Consistent theme
    • Pre-loaded
    • No configuration requirements
  • Coherent marketing activities
    • Make the service a benchmark "are you on RCS?"
    • Clear customer messages

Questions were raised about the applicability of RCS to enterprise applications. It has a clear consumer focus: is it applicable to the enterprise? A speaker from Turkcell provided a clear framework in which this question could be reviewed. He asked a question: from the perspective of the enterprise manager, does an application or service:

  • Reduce costs
  • Increase sales
  • Increase efficiency

These are excellent points - unless RCS provides clear benefits on all three counts, it's unlikely to appeal to the enterprise directly. But then, it may not have to. If it is included in mobile handsets by default, users may find utilise its capabilities, whether sanctioned by their employers or not, provided that it doesn't impose a cost burden on call plans. If it does, then cost-conscious managers may request its disablement. Personally, I doubt that it will be relevant, but await enhancements that are predicted for the enterprise in future releases with interest.

One speaker did find some relevance in RCS to the enterprise, but not in the capabilities per se, but rather in the potential to integrate the web service backend into enterprise applications. Telus endorsed this, but only if the APIs extended were based on RESTful principles.

This is excellent - already, the most innovative application vendors are eschewing telco orientated APIs and are, instead, offering RESTful web services interfaces. Once available to third party applications, such interfaces can be used to create all manner of mashup applications, allowing application vendors to leverage the best of the telco world and vice versa. Crucially, RESTful is a paradigm with broad acceptance in the developer community - it requires no knowledge of telecoms at all. We think the days of the specific telecoms orientated API for third party access (TPA) are limited to say the least. The Moriana IMS report found that legacy interfaces for TPA, such as Parlay, are of marginal interest to operators. Good - forcing developers to adopt a specific telco API has hardly proved to be a success. Shifting to something they already understand may be much more successful.

In the context of RCS, this means that an appropriate RESTful interface from RCS clients and applications could stimulate all manner of interesting mashup and integration applications. It might also mean an end to the proliferation of bespoke client interfaces - if all default RCS client-side applications support RCS, then they can easily be integrated into innovative applications that live in the operator cloud.

And so to the gainsayers. A provocative presence from TMN questioned the basis for the rosy RCS forecasts, using evidence from Push to Talk (PTT) revenues to support the point. Apparently, the integration of presence in PTT led to a 60% decline in voicemail service access revenues: why leave a message if you know the party is unavailable, just check and try again later. Moreover, early trials of video messaging services had proven unsuccessful. But, perhaps that reflected the state of the market and available handsets at the time - it can be too early to launch a service, but market conditions may develop such that it becomes attractive at a later date.

TMN was not alone in questioning the numbers. Others also argued that the timelines were mismatched. A speaker from Aylus, in an interesting presentation suggested that mass market adoption of RCS in 2013 was simply too far out - already, integrated solutions were available from OTT providers today in the web world.

So, what does this mean? RCS is an interesting initiative and will doubtless happen as handset manufacturers deploy clients. But, whether or not it will generate the revenues predicted is an entirely different argument. It covers an interesting number of key ideas, but depends absolutely on interoperability between operators to remove barriers to islands. And, it needs to happen rapidly to avoid being superseded by OTT solutions that are already emerging. And that's the big question: as Moriana found, with average launch cycles still exceeding 12 months, there isn't a great deal of time to mess around. The boat is already warming up and the gangway being raised. Operators will need to move fast to avoid missing it.

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