The Pixel 3A and Pixel 3 are coming as officially supported and sold phones on T-Mobile.
The Pixel 3A and Pixel 3 support the next-generation texting protocol called the Universal Profile for RCS (or Rich Communication Services, or Chat).
T-Mobile supports RCS.
But the Pixel 3A and Pixel 3 won’t have RCS chat on T-Mobile’s network. How is this so broken?
When Google first revealed its plans to support RCS Chat on Android back in April of 2018, I wanted to believe that it could move quickly to replace SMS on Android phones. RCS Chat is still not an end-to-end encrypted communication service, but at least it would provide better chat features like read receipts, group chats, and higher-quality attachments.
Pixel phones do support RCS on many carriers, including Verizon, Sprint, and Google’s own Fi network (which, in a delicious piece of irony, is an MVNO that theoretically provides access to several cellular networks but usually puts me on T-Mobile towers). Many Android phones on T-Mobile’s network also support RCS, though full Universal Profile support is still pending.
I had hope that this rollout would be close to finished by now because Google itself was all in on RCS — to the point where it has shut down or will soon shut down nearly all its consumer-facing texting apps (and yes there have been a lot of them). Google isn’t the company actually running RCS (though it will happily sell services to carriers to do so), but it has been acting as diplomat getting all the carriers to agree to it and supporting it via Android.
RCS is still a mess
But over a year later, progress in the US has just been laughably slow. Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all support the Universal Profile, which ensures that you can text people on different carriers. But it seems that just support RCS at the carrier level isn’t enough to guarantee you’ll get it if you’re a customer. Carriers apparently need to approve support for each phone model one-by-one as they come on the network. T-Mobile seemingly hasn’t done that for the Pixel phones, as you’ll see below.
Maybe. I could be wrong! The technical details are very unclear to me. I am not an RCS expert, I just play one on TV. I’ve asked both Google and T-Mobile to explain what’s going on here, but in the meanwhile the best we have are these support Tweets from T-Mobile that 9to5Google found:
It’s very difficult to accurately convey all the technical nuances behind whether, why, and how carriers do or do not support the Universal Profile for RCS. A carrier could support RCS but not the Universal Profile. A carrier could support RCS but apparently not be fully hooked up to the interconnect that makes it work with other carriers. Here is a Google spreadsheet crowdsourced by Reddit that is still the best source of information on what’s going on. (Note that AT&T is basically nowhere on the Universal Profile, for example.)
If you’re looking for who to blame, there’s also a handy Reddit thread for that. But the answer is simple: blame everybody. Blame Google for pinning such an essential feature on the whims and fancies of carriers. Blame carriers for being more interested in hyping virtually non-existent 5G technologies instead of replacing their antiquated SMS systems.
Carriers spend too much time hyping 5G and not enough time replacing SMS
I have a reputation for going on messaging rants and, well, reputation confirmed. Last night during our live Vergecast, I asked Hiroshi Lockheimer, who is in charge of Google’s communication products, to talk about the state of RCS. He wasn’t referencing T-Mobile specifically, but he did say this about RCS in the US: “I’ll be honest, and I’ve mentioned this to [carriers], I’m a little bit frustrated at the pace of this. It needs to get better.”
Internationally, RCS is doing much better, at least, according to Reddit’s giant spreadsheet.
One last note: even if all of these partners can take a break from talking about how great 5G will be someday and get working on real, interoperable RCS, the standard still has a fundamental problem. It’s not end-to-end encrypted, so any government can easily subpoena a carrier to get access to your chats. I asked Lockheimer specifically about that and he said that “we can address those things. ... I’m sure we can evolve the standard to handle these cases.”
I hope that is true, and I hope it happens more cleanly than the current RCS rollout in the US. Until then, there’s nothing to do but wait. I’ll update this post if I hear back from either T-Mobile or Google as to why Pixel phones won’t have RCS on that network.