MetroPCS, T-Mobile disagree on need for RCS

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There is an obvious disconnect between MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) and its suitor T-Mobile USA when it comes to Rich Communication Services (RCS) and voice over LTE (VoLTE). Either MetroPCS' efforts will ultimately be in vain once the merger of the two operators is completed or, possibly, T-Mobile will employ lessons learned from MetroPCS' experiences and use those to rapidly introduce a host of groundbreaking new services.

Right now, I'm betting on the former scenario.

Yesterday MetroPCS launched RCS under the GSM Association's joyn brand, which has gained notable traction in Europe. In Europe, joyn launches have been based on RCS-e, a subset of RCS 5.0. However, a spokesman from MetroPCS told FierceBroadbandWireless that MetroPCS--as other North American operators are expected to do--skipped over RCS-e and instead deployed services based on the more full-featured RCS 5.0 specification.

MetroPCS says its joyn-branded offering will enable it to offer numerous new services, including threaded text conversations, sharing of video, images and files while on a call as well as voice and video calling over Wi-Fi.

However, T-Mobile USA appears unimpressed about the market potential for RCS at this point. When I spoke last month with T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray about a number of issues regarding the pending merger between T-Mobile and MetroPCS, I noted that MetroPCS had long promised to offer RCS along with VoLTE, which it first launched in August. What, I wondered, were T-Mobile's plans for RCS in the United States.

Ray said there are different opinions across the industry regarding how "meaningful" RCS will be in the U.S. marketplace. Being part of Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile has had a ringside seat as joyn has rolled out in Europe.

"There are elements of the RCS offering that make sense," said Ray. But RCS is an unlikely differentiator in the U.S. market, because "you just see such a rich application environment supporting and driving many of those services that RCS is meant to populate," he added, noting such an environment is quite nascent in Europe.

"But don't take my comments as saying we're not supportive of RCS. We are, but I'm not fully at the point of where I believe RCS is a critical component and element of future growth for us on our data offerings and our services," said Ray. He added that T-Mobile is very close to the process and the standards behind RCS, "and we'll be continuing to evaluate and drive those as we see fit."

That is far from a resounding vote in support of a rapid and groundbreaking RCS rollout. T-Mobile has also been at odds with MetroPCS' viewpoints on VoLTE as well.

Though T-Mobile has pledged to continue supporting MetroPCS' VoLTE deployments after their merger closes, likely in the second quarter of 2013, T-Mobile is "not in a huge rush on VoLTE because we have such underlying strength on HSPA and GSM voice," Ray said. He added T-Mobile continues to evaluate its path and roadmap on VoLTE and will "leverage every ounce of what the Metro team has pioneered and done."

MetroPCS is performing an admirable job of conducting business as usual and deploying the market-leading services it has promised. That's a smart move because--as T-Mobile can attest--planned mergers don't always close. Yet, it would be a shame if a successful merger with T-Mobile ultimately means MetroPCS' RCS and VoLTE efforts pretty much fall by the wayside, as often happens when a big fish swallows a smaller one.--Tammy

P.S. Please be sure to vote in the poll on our home page regarding your thoughts on RCS' potential in the United States.

Column was updated on Nov. 1, 2012, to provide additional information on MetroPCS' joyn launch.