MetroPCS launches RCS for voice, video and text over its LTE network

The standardized Rich Communications Suite will be available on 10 handsets by mid-November, MetroPCS said

RCS, a standard for combining voice calls with video and text chatting on smartphones, notched a win on Wednesday with U.S. carrier MetroPCS but faces an uncertain future.

MetroPCS announced that RCS (Rich Communications Suite) is available immediately over its LTE network for one handset, the Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G. Subscribers with that phone can download the app for RCS, called joyn, from the carrier's @metro App Store or the Google Play store. The app is free and use is covered under the carrier's existing plans. MetroPCS said it was the world's first carrier in the world to offer RCS over LTE.

MetroPCS plans to offer joyn on 10 handsets by mid-November. Joyn will only run on the carrier's LTE network, which is available in 14 cities, said Solyman Ashrafi, vice president of product marketing. RCS isn't available in the Las Vegas area yet, but will be by the end of this year, he said. Video chat with joyn currently works only over Wi-Fi but soon will run on LTE, he said. MetroPCS adopted the joyn brand from GSMA, the international body that established the RCS standard.

RCS brings voice, video and text messaging under one umbrella, with presence technology to show whether contacts are available. It lets users share videos, images and files, as well as their locations, while talking on the phone. Wi-Fi voice and video calling is also included. A key advantage of the suite is that it lets subscribers shift among several different communication modes without having to start a new app or log into anything. All types of sessions can be launched from the phone's contact list. Eventually, joyn will be built into smartphones when subscribers buy them from MetroPCS.

The technology could help mobile operators offer services to compete against over-the-top applications such as WhatsApp and Sidecar. However, the success of RCS could be stunted by the popularity of those existing third-party services and similar communications suites that carriers are launching on their own, according to analyst Chetan Sharma, who runs Chetan Sharma Consulting.

The success of RCS will depend on how many carriers and how many devices offer it, a factor that's hard to predict, Sharma said. For its success, a majority of operators will have to offer RCS on a majority of handsets, at a price that consumers want to pay, he said. "Until you have that, it's noise, to some extent," he said. MetroPCS is the nation's fifth-largest carrier by subscribers, with 8.9 million customers at the end of its most recent quarter.

For example, Spain-based international mobile operator Telefonica recently introduced its own IP messaging service that does much the same things as RCS, Sharma said. Telefonica also offers RCS. Many of the world's major carriers have endorsed RCS, but it's not clear yet how much or how quickly they will truly embrace the technology, he said.

"How fast RCS can actually gain subscriber base, and whether it can effectively compete from a pure market reach perspective, I think remains to be seen," Sharma said. It won't happen in the next year or two, he said. For now, "there's just no competition with the existing IP messaging guys." New features and intelligent pricing could help RCS to gain more ground, Sharma said.

Though carriers can offer both RCS and their own IP messaging services, a key success factor will be how many other people a subscriber can reach with a given software suite. For example, Apple's Facetime video calling system may be popular among iPhone and iPad users, but its success has a limit as long as it's not available on other vendors' devices. The same effect could hamper RCS if it's not used or offered widely enough, he said.

The iPhone may represent one of the major stumbling blocks for RCS, said Peter Jarich, an analyst at Current Analysis. Apple hasn't embraced RCS, and there are many third-party apps offering similar capabilities for its wildly popular phones. Without Apple, "you've just lost a huge chunk of the market," Jarich said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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