RCS is bringing sexy back

01 May 2018 | James Pearce

Vodafone Carrier Services CEO Brian Fitzpatrick talks about the carrier's messaging strategy

Cast your mind back to February, 2013. A hot-air balloon crashed into the Egyptian city of Luxor. The Solomon Islands earthquake struck the Australian coast. And the GSMA – the mobile industry association – launched what it hoped would be a revolutionary technology that could help shake up the messaging industry.

Joyn – the pre-cursor to Rich Communication Services – was unveiled at Mobile World Congress 2013 and was soon adopted by the likes of Orange in France. But adoption, in general, was slow and Joyn soon disappeared.

Another shift that occurred in 2013 was Vodafone launched its new wholesale carrier division, Vodafone Carrier Services, and it is this part of one of the world’s largest telcos that is hoping to drive RCS adoption.

Brian Fitzpatrick, the man who has led VCS since it was launched at International Telecoms Week in 2013, believes that RCS is bringing the "sexy" back to messaging and SMS.

"The RCS capability enhances messaging. It makes it sexier. I can only see the upside from it," he told Capacity in a recent interview to commemorate five years of Vodafone Carrier Services.

Vodafone has been a noticeable backer of RCS. It first began rolling out the service as early as 2014, creating an offering for Android users across the UK alongside a Vodafone app called Message+. 

At the time, Vodafone explained what it saw as the benefits of RCS: "Messaging through data has lots of plus points. Things like sending picture messages over the web instead of via MMS, or sending and receiving international texts at no extra charge. When people start using it, they will see that it can save them money – each text message is only a couple of kilobytes in size, so it’s tiny compared to our data allowances. Your messaging experience will also be richer – you can add pictures, emoticons, locations, videos and more."

The thing is, the messaging landscape has changed dramatically since 2013. By this point, WhatsApp was already live and, according to a December 2013 blog post, it had 400 million active users of the service per month. The following year it was bought by Facebook for $19 billion. Since then, the OTT messaging service has seen its user numbers almost quadruple – it was 1.5 billion at the end of 2017.

Fitzpatrick admits the OTT’s have had noticeable impact on the industry as a whole, saying: "Over the last five years by far the biggest change has been the influence and activity of the OTTs. Not from a naïve perspective but they have taken a very dominant position in shaping how we operate in the market. Five years ago if you asked us we would have had a different perspective. They have helped the market by raising the bar for performance and changing the economics at a per unit level that we need to continuously address."

It is another OTT that is seen as one of the key drivers of RCS, however, and that is Google. In 2015, Google bought a New York company, Jibe, for an undisclosed sum with the idea that it could relaunch its messaging effort.

Google’s Android is the dominant mobile operating system across most of the world, with a market share that hovers around 82-87%, according to IDC, showing how important its adoption of RCS could be to the service.

"Some of the bigger players are getting involved in RCS," Fitzpatrick adds. "I’d put us in that category, along with Google. People have seen P2P declining with A2P becoming a focus and the ability to enhance it is clear when you do. 

"We found that in its beginning forms, the focus we have put on it have yielded us tremendous value inside of our footprint. We have proven to ourselves by applying that focus that the likes of RCS and other technologies that will present themselves in years to come and that is something to stay focussed on."

Overall, messaging remains one of Vodafone’s core areas of focus, alongside voice and what Fitzpatrick labels as "infrastructure" – itself split into subsea cables, national backhaul and local access services.

Since it launched five years ago, VCS has launched an integrated, centralised messaging platform which it calls the Vodafone Messaging Hub. This, he adds, is a unique offering for the carrier because it "operates as a single front door into the Vodafone global footprint."

"Vodafone was quite a difficult organisation to deal with five years ago because we operated as 26 separate companies," he explains, talking about the fact that prior to VCS wholesale services fell under the control of Vodafone Group’s local operations. 

"We saw that as an opportunity not just for ourselves but as a way to enhance the relationship we had with the rest of our peers in the industry by centralising into one platform and providing that single way in. That helped us address things like revenue loss through grey routes by giving us better controls. It enhances customer value for our consumer customers, but also any mobile operators we work with through P2P or A2P messaging."

Application-to-peer messaging is the saviour for the messaging industry, he adds, given the decline of P2P messaging in the face of OTT services. The opportunity here is big, he claims, and so Vodafone is seeking new partners to continue its capitalisation of this opportunity.

"We are a firm believer that the A2P messaging market will continue to evolve in a very positive way. We are one of the few investors – we have our own RCS platform and we’re actively looking at partnerships around the world at both a carrier and enterprise level. We firmly believe that that is going to evolve and enhance the A2P market space for quite a few years to come."

Topics: RCS, Vodafone Carrier Services, SMS, messaging, MWC, ORange, Vodafone, Brian Fitzpatrick