FireChat is a messaging app. There are a lot of messaging apps, so if you’re not impressed here, that’s to be expected. Chat app downloads exploded in the last year, and they’ve become a hot commodity.
FireChat works like a lot of these in many regards: The app connects to Wi-Fi and sends your message to another user. But the real potential lies in what happens when you are offline.
The app uses mesh networking to enable communication without any Internet connection at all. For two people to communicate off the grid, they need to be within 40-70 yards of each other or so, but the proliferation of mobile devices (that are hopefully running FireChat as well) makes it theoretically possible to send messages as far as one would like by bouncing the message from phone to phone until it reaches the intended recipient.
“Right now there are a huge number of people who aren’t on the Internet at all,” said FireChat cofounder and CTO Stanislav Shalunov. “Different estimates put this number between 3 and 5 billion. However you define what it means to never see the Internet, it still describes a majority of mankind.”
But more and more of these people are getting smartphones, even if they don’t subscribe to a data plan at the same time. They might just use the device for phone calls, connecting to the Internet sporadically via Wi-Fi because data plans are prohibitively expensive. “People spending $50 a month on food are unlikely to spend $10 on a data plan. But within two or three years, billions of people will get smartphones. This includes a class of users who clamor for Internet connectivity but are unable to afford it. FireChat gives them the ability to communicate for free with no dependence on any infrastructure,” said Shalunov.
“I want to contribute to how the mobile Internet works. The current model is broken and inherited from the days when connections were wired.”
Essentially, FireChat turns the phone itself into an Internet infrastructure. Under modern cellular network design today, the more devices that try to access the Internet, the more clogged the network becomes. FireChat turns this paradigm on its head: “A higher density of devices means it’s easier to communicate with people. Each device is a node. More nodes means more capacity.”
Facebook and Google are actively trying to solve the same problem. Facebook wants to get the world online by flying Internet-supplying drones over remote areas without technical infrastructure. Google is doing the same thing with giant weather balloons. And FireChat wants to use the phones people already have in their pockets.
Shalunov knows what he’s talking about when it comes to distributed networking systems. He’s a developer behind the LEDBAT protocol, a heavy-duty mechanism for moving vast amounts of data around the Internet. It currently carries roughly one-sixth of the data we generate every day.
The app is unmonetized for all the right reasons. The FireChat team wants to “scale and create value before worrying about making money.”
“I want to contribute to how the mobile Internet works,” he said. “The current model is broken and inherited from the days when connections were wired. You only ever had one connection and you used it for long time under a long-term contract. None of those assumptions hold any longer with wireless. Both the technical structure and economic model remain the same. It no longer makes technical sense.”
For now, FireChat is quite basic in its functionality. When connected to Wi-Fi, you can speak to anyone and everyone on its network. But for it to have its widest-reaching implications, we’ll have to do something that feels so unnatural: disconnect.
Photo via onlywhenchased/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)