I am pretty new to Substrate and wonder if we can communicate with ink! smart contracts via established libraries such as web3.js or ethers.js? Is the underlying RPC-based communication the same?

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No, the underlying RPC-based communication is not the same. There is an interesting discussion in the Polkadot Forum you might want to follow: WrappedEVM Eth RPC compatibility layer.

The alternative in substrate is polkadotjs, and more specifically for ink! smart contracts the library useink. Check the documentation of useink here: https://use.ink/frontend/overview

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