In many countries, a vast majority of people have internet access, and we are slowly forgetting how to get things done without a smartphone in-hand (almost as if they are part of our brain). For countries that don’t have easy and wide access to internet, there are (and have been) projects in place to give them internet access. It has gotten to the point that it is considered by many to be a human right.
So, when internet is unavailable to a large number of people, whether it be from a natural disaster or a government shutting down the wifi, or when government interference or surveillance begin to violate human rights, people will naturally try to figure out a way around it. One example of this is what is called “mesh internet.”
The concept of a “mesh network” is that any phone, router, or various other electronic device can act as a sort of node in a network. Each node in this network can daisy chain to each other via bluetooth and wifi signal to share and transfer information. Messages, pictures, and even videos can be shared through these user-made networks, without a cellular signal or internet connection.
Surprisingly, mesh networks have been used for quite a long time. In fact, they have been used as long as the internet itself has existed. However, the fact that there are so many more electronic devices populating the world today makes mesh internet an even more viable option. A mesh network only works if enough people are using it. If nobody is nearby, your device has nothing to connect to, and the mesh network cannot exist. The more people using the network, however, the faster and smoother it will run.
FireChat is a mobile app that operates exclusively by use of mesh internet. By using FireChat, your phone will automatically begin to operate as a node and connect to any devices nearby, thus adding to a mesh network. With this app, you can share private conversations, and even start message boards. The app has picture-sharing capabilities, and may one day have sound capabilities, which would mean mesh internet could replace your phone bill. While there are apps that allow you to make money on your smartphone, this app could save you money if it really is able to replace phone and internet bills.
As this app is widely used in protest of governments that will monitor internet use, you have the option to have private conversations on FireChat, and they will remain private. Much like Apple’s recent battle to protect their users’ privacy, apps like FireChat work as a sort of fail-safe in case the government is too nosy or controlling. Afterall, the UN has recently acknowledged online freedom of speech a global human right.
The majority of FireChat downloads have been in effect of some significant events. Ten days after the very launch of FireChat, students protesting in Taiwan downloaded the app out of fear that the government would shut down the internet, resulting in a million installs in the first ten days. A similar situation happened when more than 40,000 Iraqis downloaded the app in one weekend. When internet is completely shut down, mesh networking is a perfectly suitable substitute.
Micha Benoliel, co-founder of OpenGarden, FireChat’s developer, says that he means for FireChat to remain absolutely free to users, forever. While so far, the main uses of FireChat have been during times of emergency or protest, Benoliel hopes that users adopt FireChat as an alternative even in casual settings, such as camping, or in crowded areas where the internet signal may not be great. Many apps boast their ability to make life easier, but basically universal, free internet and telephone capabilities just knocks those other apps out of the ballpark.