CLAREMONT, California — During March of 2014, university students in Taiwan occupied Parliament, piling furniture against the doors in protest of a controversial trade agreement with China. However, protesters in different areas of the building had difficulty communicating with one another with poor or nonexistent cell phone service. To combat this, they used the newly released FireChat, an application that allows users to send messages and communicate without web or cell phone coverage, free of charge.
FireChat provides users the ability to communicate by connecting to BlueTooth or Wi-Fi, even if no Internet connection is available. The app creates a small Internet space where users can send messages or pictures to one another in the same local area. Individuals can create their own chat groups, or firechats, or join other discussions.
The application, created by tech startup Open Garden, launched in late March with over a million downloads of the iOS version in the first two weeks. FireChat is now available in both iOS and Android, with the ability for both types of devices to chat with one another. While FireChat is currently limited to sending messages and photos in a range of about 100 feet, the technology behind it, called mesh networking, has significant potential in the way of increasing internet access to developing countries.
Mesh networks can be set up in disaster zones or remote places without previously existent cell coverage. If one person can access the Internet, that connection can be shared through the mesh network.
Those who have access essentially publish a route or “road map” that can be sent out to others. The map then tells other devices about a path they can take to access the Internet efficiently.
The technology also bypasses central organizations and government agencies.
While governments can shut off access to Internet providers, that cannot reach mesh networks. In countries with strict web regulations, such as North Korea and China, citizens now have a way to connect in a way they didn’t have before.
Mesh networking builds off of the basic technology used for Internet access around the world. As the technology continues to grow off of the existing Internet infrastructure, experts say that FireChat may be able to connect users to Internet access all over the world.
“Once you build a mesh network … now you have a network that is resilient, self-healing, cannot be controlled by any central organization, cannot be shut down and is always working,” said Open Garden Marketing and Sales Vice President Christophe Daligault in an interview with NPR. “I think that solves many other drawbacks or challenges of the mobile broadband Internet today.”
Though the technology is still gaining ground, Open Garden has high goals for the application. Mesh networking technology, made widespread through the increasing abundance of smart phones, may transform the world’s future Internet infrastructure. In the first few months of its inception, FireChat possesses a powerful reach for assisting those affected by natural disaster and living in developing countries.
“In a year or two from now,” Daligault said. “ I think people won’t even remember that you had to be on Wi-Fi or get a cell signal to be able to communicate.”
– Julia Thomas