Google goes over the top with RCS

Universal messaging, carrier charges, lawful intercept: what's not to like?


Google has run into a privacy furore with its acquisition last September of carrier messaging company Jibe.

Jibe is a messaging platform based on the GSMA's Rich Communication Services (RCS) standard, which kicked off back in 2007 as the telco sector's answer to the looming threat of over-the-top (OTT) services.

That threat didn't just loom: it materialised in the form of Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype, all of which taught the public that a phone with Wi-Fi or a good 4G data allowance no longer had to rely on carriers' voice and SMS for communications.

At the time, the acquisition didn't get much interest, but over at Mobile World Congress, Google – which, The Register notes, has not dented the OTT market like its competitors have – has joined hands with a bunch of carriers to apply the defibrillator to RCS.

The cheerleading club also includes América Móvil, Bharti Airtel Ltd, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Globe Telecom, KPN, Millicom, MTN, Orange, PLAY, Smart Communications, Sprint, Telenor Group, TeliaSonera, Telstra, TIM, Turkcell, VimpelCom, Vodafone and the GSMA, the joint media release says.

Google's Jibe contribution is going to be a universal Android RCS client "based on the universal RCS profile" the carriers are agreeing to.

In other words, the carriers have realised that a messaging standard needs the kind of interoperability that made the SMS service the big hit of the 1990s, and have noticed far too late that OTT applications have got the jump.

All of this would be unremarkable except that, as commenters over at Hacker News have noticed, "carrier services" have a characteristic that OTT services don't: support for lawful intercept.

As the GSMA remarks here: "Mobile network operators are subject to a range of laws and licence conditions that require them to be capable of intercepting customer communications, to retain a range of subscriber and usage data and to disclose this data to law enforcement agencies on demand. While RCS allows lawful intercept at both the service data layer and session data layer, any interference with mobile users' right to privacy must be in accordance with the law."

With Apple currently fighting the FBI over access to a single device, it seems unlikely that users will rush to adopt a service that's explicitly designed to let law enforcement see their messages.

There's also the issue of cost. A message sent via Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and the rest will, at worst, incur 3G or 4G data charges, but RCS is designed to bring SMS-style carrier charges to messaging. From the same GSMA document: "Termination of RCS traffic follows the same model as standard mobile voice and data services. Mobile termination rates (MTRs) are wholesale rates, regulated in many countries by establishing a schedule of annual rate changes that are factored into mobile network operators' business model."

Not that Android users have to panic about being roped into the warm embrace of carrier services and lawful intercept any time in the next week.

Before the World plus Dog/Jibe partnership comes to fruition, the GSMA has to finish the RCS universal profile, which will almost certainly happen with the blistering speed common to standards organisations.

A lot of work has already gone into RCS – the universal profile is going to be based on the existing RCS 5.3 specification – and even so, the focus on "consistent and interoperable" messaging services as the foundation of the universal profile neatly illustrates how long it can take to get a room full of mobile operators to agree.

Pamela Clark-Dickson, Ovum principal analyst for consumer services, told The Register that a minimalist profile will put RCS at a disadvantage, since many third-party apps already integrate voice and messaging services. Once the Android client lands, there'll be pressure on all parties to extend the profile so users don't ignore it in favour of existing OTT apps.

Clark-Dickson also wrote at Ovum that delivering an app rather than trying to make RCS part of the core OS will be quicker, but telcos are still going to have to convince users to use the RCS features.

She added that Google's plan to offer an open source RCS client, complete with developer APIs, is a departure from the GSMA's habit of keeping things under tight control. That move would make it easier for third-party developers to get involved – but only if they believe there's an audience among users.

The Register wouldn't be surprised if The Chocolate Factory leaves itself room to move on this one: if the carrier services don't take off, it'll try to roll over the top of them and pitch Jibe next to the existing host of OTT apps. ®

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