By Chen Songlin
By combining RCS and VoLTE, China Mobile and SKT upgraded their voice and SMS services and leveraged network advantages to differentiate their services from OTT services. They adopted the "entrance + platform" policy to open RCS platform capabilities to achieve win-win outcomes with partners.
Carriers have long been criticized for being unable to upgrade SMS, MMS, or video calls, and for monotonous functions and relatively poor user experience. The Rich Communication Suite (RCS) industry initiative was developed to change just that.
Problems facing RCS
According to GSMA statistics, so far, 17 carriers in 11 countries have deployed RCS and 5 of the top 10 global carriers have realized commercial RCS use. By 2015, RCS will be deployed by 85 carriers around the world. However, no apparent success has been achieved so far. RCS-e (IP messaging + video sharing) services offered by the G5 (Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, and Vodafone) did not attract as many users as OTT services did. Basic communication experience has yet to be upgraded. The failure is mostly due to the business model. G5 RCS provides only free IP messaging services. There is a plan to develop G5 RCS terminals, but currently there is only an app, which attracts few loyal users and does not differentiate itself from OTT apps. The progress of developing G5 RCS terminals is slow and a RCS-based ecosystem is yet to be established. The business model is still a carrier-dominated one with no efforts or framework dedicated to attracting OTT players and industry app developers.
Unleash RCS potential
In the past two years, China Mobile and SK Telecom (SKT) have both taken measures to solve the problems facing RCS. For starters, VoLTE and RCS have been combined to upgrade voice and SMS services with RCS positioned as a basic communication capability rather that a value-added service (VAS). Carrier advantages such as full interconnection, high quality, and 100% availability have also been leveraged to establish clear superiority over OTT services. Both carriers have adopted the strategy of "entrance + platform." For example, China Mobile upgraded its communication entrance through the "New Voice Calls, New SMS, and New Contacts" policy and opened its RCS platform capabilities to partners. There are three keys to unlock RCS excellence.
Business model innovation
China Mobile's "New Voice Calls, New SMS, and New Contacts" policy features smooth evolution. It allows users to enjoy HD MMS and HD video conversations with the same service stability and availability as SMS and telephone calls. Carriers can increase revenues by taking the following measures:
They can put MMS of RCS and traditional SMS/MMS in a bundle that allows a finite number of messages. If subscribers use up all messages, they can buy top-up bundles. This way, users can enjoy far better services while paying a bit more if they use more. At the same time, carriers can increase the average revenue per user (ARPU) of the message service. The amazing experience of RCS MMS services will stimulate more subscribers to change their 2G/3G bundles for 4G bundles, cutting TCO on 2G/3G networks.
Globalization is driving more and more people to study, travel, and do business abroad, yet the expense of international roaming remains prohibitively high for many users. Many people simply buy disposable local SIM cards or use VoIP services such as Skype while they travel overseas. China Mobile's "New Voice Call" offers another option. Users can initiate international Wi-Fi calls on a local RCS phone or app. The price is comparable to that of domestic calls. This creates a new revenue source for China Mobile. The service experience is better than Skype because users can retain original phone numbers and the ring tone ensures no phone calls or SMS are missed. Besides, there are no fees for receiving a roaming call and voice mail notifications are also provided. According to statistics of the China National Tourism Administration, the number of outbound Chinese travelers reached 97 million in 2013. There are also a huge number of overseas students, business people, enterprise branches, and overseas workers – all have strong demands for communication. This market has great potential.
In addition, RCS capabilities can be opened."New SMS" capabilities can be opened to the application-to-person (A2P) market. For example, carriers can interconnect with business/government processes through the RCS open gateway and apply the new SMS capabilities to businesses' and government's customer relationship management (CRM), marketing, media subscription, and mini-SNS. "New Voice Call" capabilities can be opened to upstream and downstream partners. Carriers can open HD voice and video call capabilities to upstream third-party developers or integrators through the easy-to-use application programming interface (API). The developer and integrators will integrate the capabilities into CRM, office automation (OA), and enterprise resource planning (ERP). Alternately, carriers can develop video-call software development kits (SDKs), which will be integrated into a wide range of smart terminals such as IP cameras and doorbells by downstream third parties.
Carriers and third-party developers should share the revenues. That would motivate developers to develop even better apps and the RCS-capability opening community would be very attractive. Capability opening would also help carriers to break into the new M2M market.
User experience improvement
Network capabilities determine user experience. IP multimedia subsystem-based (IMS-based) IT infrastructure ensures ubiquitous and seamless service experience with 100% reliability (retaining of original phone numbers, multi-terminal, push notifications, and firewall traversal). Policy and charging rules function-based (PCRF-based) accurate control of network bandwidth and quality levels guarantees HD video call experience. Control over traditional telecom networks leverages to enhance integrated interconnection experience. For example, automatic switch between IM and SMS, VoLTE fallback to CS network, and video conferencing through fixed and mobile convergence (FMC). These capabilities will differentiate carriers from OTT companies. Service stability, continuity, and simplicity are essential to customer loyalty and are decided by network capabilities as well as terminals.
Terminal interface experience also has a huge impact on overall user experience. The friendliness of the user interface, including the color, style, interaction, and even reminders, requires a special design team. Many large carriers have their own user interface design teams that follow the latest user demands and technologies and apply them in RCS interface design. This requires separation of bottom-layer communication capabilities and interface design to ensure constant interface upgrade does not affect service quality.
Industry chain innovation
Building the RCS industry chain will be challenging. The capability-opening ecosystem and the terminal devices are not mature, especially local terminal devices. GSMA launched a RCS product called joyn, which was developed for local terminal design. Its product development documents (PDDs) define in detail the terminal service experience and the interface between terminals and the network. GSMA also provides regular authentication service, which draws participation from 9 of the top 10 mobile phone manufacturers. So far, over 50 types of mainstream flagship smartphones have passed the authentication. Top carriers such as AT&T and Verizon also require terminals to support local RCS. Naturally, as China Mobile and other carriers start RCS commercialization in the 2014 Q4, terminals in China will become more mature.
An ecosystem of capability opening and sharing is also crucial to the execution of the aforementioned business model. A carrier-dominated ecosystem cannot flourish. Capability opening and sharing should be taken into consideration during the primary stage of RCS planning and construction, including the construction of the capability opening platform and the partner league, and the reservation of uplink and downlink interfaces. In RCS network planning, carriers must bear in mind what devices must be stable (such as IMS core and RCS AS), what devices must support dynamic upgrade in the future (such as RCS opening interface gateway and big data interface gateway), and specify the revenue sharing rules ahead of time. Carriers should learn from successful industry cases to attract more developers to join the ecosystem.
As one of the pioneers of GSMA RCS standards formulation and product development, Huawei can offer E2E RCS solutions. So far, Huawei has served more than 10 carriers in over 20 countries with RCS solutions and consultancy service. The company has accumulated valuable experience in network deployment, business model design, user experience improvement, and partner league construction. To help customers achieve ultimate RCS success, Huawei is willing to cooperate with more carriers working in integrated MMS communication.