Rich Communications Suite (RCS) has for some time been touted as a means for operators to gain a foothold in the unified messaging platform and presence markets. An industry effort, RCS is intended to offer networks a rapidly deployable set of standards for delivering to subscribers features such as enriched calling (sharing multimedia during a call), enhanced messaging and an enhanced phonebook with presence capabilities.

Background on RCS

While RCS had a number of trials with operators, there is still a degree of industry skepticism about whether RCS will take off as a an initiative, or whether services such as over-the-top (OTT) messaging already offered by providers such as Apple’s iMessage and WhatsApp will hinder RCS adoption before its time. Social networks, such as Facebook, also have been at the forefront of providing unified messaging services similar to what RCS will provide. The messaging and presence communications landscape is rapidly evolving to include a wider variety of providers than ever before and some feel that operators may be left behind, becoming little more than bit pipes for other companies’ services. At its extreme, this trend has been portrayed as presaging the death of SMS as the primary mobile messaging tool.  If this extreme scenario were to happen, there can be little doubt that operators would struggle to find a revenue stream to replace it.  

However, operator provided messaging services such as SMS and RCS have a unique advantage over other services in that operator provided messaging services are ubiquitous across mobile devices and across carriers. Users can have confidence that they can communicate with anyone with a mobile phone – without worrying about whether their contact has downloaded a new over-the-top application. SMS comes standard with all mobile phones today. And if you take a successful service such as the over-the-top messaging application “WhatsApp,” which has millions of users, that number still pales in comparison to the more than 5 billion mobile connections in the world that SMS messages can reach. If RCS is successful, the mobile industry will roll out RCS to all devices, enabling those 5 billion connections to send RCS messages just as ubiquitously as SMS. That’s quite a contender.

RCS Security

If RCS is to take off, security will be a key aspect in its success. Largely, the success or failure of RCS will – as with all consumer services – depend on the quality of the end user experience. This will involve ensuring that messages are delivered on time, that coverage is as ubiquitous as possible and that there is no congestion on the network. Importantly, it will also mean ensuring that the communication channel is kept clean of security threats such as malware, phishing, fraud and spam. The fact of the matter is that with the increasing penetration of ever-more sophisticated mobile devices comes ever-more sophisticated mobile threats. The recent pilot findings from the GSMA Spam Reporting Service (SRS) indicated that 70 percent of subscribers’ reports of messaging abuse were acts of attempted fraud, highlighting the growing prevalence of mobile spam and the risks it poses to end users.

The fact that RCS works on a one-to-many basis means that attackers could send to many thousands of handsets quite easily if not protected. This would make it a much more scalable and cost-effective channel for attackers than they currently have access to.  As a new channel for spam and other threats, there is no doubt that criminals or rogue companies will look to exploit it. This will be of most concern during the initial rollout of the service when attackers would look to test it to its limit, seeking out any potential flaws they can use to send their messages. With RCS offering an enhanced messaging platform that allows users to send messages to both individuals and groups at any given time, the ROI and convenience of the service can be easily exploited by scammers.

SMS currently generates a staggering hundred billion dollars a year globally. Over-the-top services threaten this current messaging traffic revenue, value-added services and advertising revenue around messaging. Operators must ensure that RCS is free from threats and unwanted messages if the service is to be successfully adopted by users and their revenue from these services is to be protected.

The Future of RCS

With ever-greater amounts of personal communications being united through a common initiative, the benefits for the users are obvious. However, the rewards for potential hackers are significant. RCS has the potential to offer operators a way of maintaining a foothold in the messaging space. It could deliver new and even richer ways for subscribers to communicate and collaborate through their mobiles while generating significant revenue streams for the operators that deliver them. For RCS to be a success, however, operators need to address the security of the channel from the outset, ensuring that spam or malicious messages are stopped before they get to the subscribers. By doing so, RCS will generate trust from end users and enable it to live up to its potential.

Jamie de Guerre is chief technology officer at Cloudmark.