Google Gets Major US Carriers to Sign Up for RCS

Verizon is the latest name to join the rich-messaging party

Last week, Verizon announced that it will make Google’s Messages the default messaging app on all Android devices starting in 2022. The app uses Rich Communication Services (RCS) technology to replace SMS-based texts. As the RCS protocol becomes the new default for texting, Verizon is the last of the big three US carriers to get on board.

In June 2021, AT&T and Google announced that all Android phones on AT&T’s network will use Google’s Android Messages app, with T-Mobile announcing a similar deal with Google earlier in March. After several years of hiccups, Google has finally made deals with carriers to use the standard Android Messages app, which supports RCS by default. According to the GSMA, there are 473 million monthly active users of RCS globally, spread between 90 operators, and the adoption of this form of communication in the US is likely to boost that number.

But these efforts to make RCS finally commonplace in the US have been a long time in the making. In 2016, Google linked up with the four big US carriers in a bid to move to the RCS protocol (see Google Teams Up for RCS). And in 2019, the carriers joined forces again to make RCS a hit (see Getting Rich Slowly).

In the early years of Google Messages, downloading the app didn’t guarantee the promised benefits, either because message recipients didn’t have an app compatible with RCS installed on their phones, or they weren’t with a carrier that supported the platform, so most Android chats defaulted to SMS. With Messages now the default on most new Android phones in the US, RCS messaging will become the norm — not the exception.

Verizon is working with Google to bring the next generation of SMS replacement to all its customers. By the end of 2021, existing subscribers using the carrier’s Message+ app will get full access to the RCS suite, including real-time typing indicators and read receipts. Beginning in 2022, Google’s phones will come with its Messages app installed. Once that happens, RCS perks like end-to-end encryption for one-on-one conversations and the ability to send full-resolution photos will just be an app away.

RCS also shows potential in the business sector, beyond just peer-to-peer messaging. It could be used to help companies communicate better to customers or make it easier for customers to buy products or ask questions. For example, in October 2020, UK operator EE partnered with Google to offer RCS business messaging to businesses in the UK.

Google has been pushing RCS for years, and at times the project looked like it would have the same fate as the company’s past efforts in mobile messaging. To say this announcement is a significant milestone for Google would be an understatement.

The announcement also leaves Apple in an odd position. Once an innovator in the space, the company is now on the outside of this broadly adopted ecosystem, as text messages between Apple and Android devices will default to SMS because Apple doesn’t support RCS. However, Apple has always seemed to prefer the proprietary approach, and there’s little evidence it will change this stance.

It also seems that carrier messaging traffic is still very much on the rise in the US, as shown in a recent report by the CTIA (see here). Total carrier messages — SMS and MMS combined — reached 2.2 trillion in 2020, an increase of more than 119 billion over 2019, driven by a 28% jump in MMS messages. So although WhatsApp and other apps like it may be booming, the more traditional form of messaging is still growing too.