China's three biggest telecoms carriers are joining forces to try and take a slice of the country's messaging market with a 5G-based service that will compete directly with Tencent's ubiquitous WeChat super app.
"Traditional text-based messaging services can't meet varying consumer demands due to limited functions and sloppy user experiences," China Unicom, China Mobile, and China Telecom said in a joint white paper on Wednesday, adding that 5G-based rich communication services (RCS) will enhance the user experience and offer more opportunities for smartphone and telecoms equipment vendors.
During a webinar to announce the white paper, representatives from the telcos said 2020 was an important year for China's 5G development and its commercial applications. The three companies aim to install 500,000 5G base stations this year despite the slowdown in construction and testing caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Under 5G-based RCS, users will be able to exchange text messages, photos, video and audio directly via the message window on their phones, without needing to download an app, and be able to customise services via an index function similar to app stores.
It will also enable government organisations and firms to provide their services and communicate with users directly.
GSMA says China maintains lead in 5G networks
"RCS is not a new thing. It failed to establish itself as a popular service because of (the incompatible networks) of the three telcos, giving opportunities for open messaging apps like WeChat to grow rapidly," said Zhao Guodong, general secretary of the Zhongguancun Big Data Industry Alliance.
Zhao noted that while integrated 5G networks would allow telcos to win back some lost ground, the challenge will be in changing consumers' habits.
Tencent's omnipresent instant messaging app WeChat, which had more than 1.1 billion user accounts in China as of the first quarter last year, is embedded with a slew of functions such as payments, asset management, personal communications, and ticket purchasing to provide one-stop services for users.
"(RCS) will be icing on the cake as a 5G function, but it won't pose any threat to WeChat any time soon as tremendous time and effort is required to create an ecosystem (on that scale)," said Liu Xingliang, an independent internet and technology expert.
Nonetheless, all 5G devices made by smartphone makers will support 5G RCS, according to GSMA, the association representing telecommunication operators worldwide.
Several leading Chinese smartphone makers and telecoms equipment makers including Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, Vivo, and Oppo took part in the webinar, signalling industry-wide support for the upcoming RCS.
Yu Peng, Xiaomi's China sales manager, confirmed that the company's 5G phones will fully support RCS.
Zhao said it would be good for consumers if telcos can provide an advanced service on par with other messaging apps. "It would encourage competition so we don't need to purely rely on WeChat," he said.
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