If you want clues about where the internet is censored, overloaded or just plain broken, look for spikes in downloads of apps like Firechat – a peer-to-peer app that doesn’t need a central server. According to OpenGarden, its developers, in just one weekend in early June it was downloaded by more than 40,000 people in Iraq.
Firechat is a messaging app based on the concept of “peer-to-peer mesh networking”. It runs on smartphones and tablets like a normal chat programme, but as well as communicating with a central server to upload and download messages – as services such as WhatsApp work – it can work without any centralised control at all.
“Your phone today, your smartphone, not only has a radio to connect to a cell tower, but it also has other radios like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, to connect to other devices around,” explains OpenGarden co-founder Micha Benoliel. “And when smartphones are next to each other with Firechat, they directly interconnect.”
Firechat listens out, on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, for other phones running the same app. If they “hear” one, they can talk to each other, and even pass on messages meant for other phones in the vicinity. With enough phones in one area, a “mesh” is built up, letting any phone speak to any other phone, and all without going on to the internet at all. (When using mesh networking, Firechat can’t connect to the internet even if one phone at the edge of the mesh has a connection – but that is OpenGarden’s eventual aim.)
On Monday, a new version of the app, released as Firechat <3, or “Firechat Love”, merges the Android and iOS versions into one cross-compatible app, expanding that mesh still further. Benoliel hopes that with the new release, the company can build its install base, not just in typical target markets like the UK and US, but also in places like Iraq and Taiwan, which saw its own spike in downloads during April’s student protests when the government threatened to shut down the internet.
Despite not having its own app store, Iraq is now the second biggest country in terms of usage for Firechat. For now, the service remains freely available – unlike Facebook and Twitter, both of which have been targeted by government censors in the wake of the ISIS uprising in the north of the country. Until Friday 13 June, there had been a total of just 6,600 downloads from IP addresses in the country in the since the beginning of April.
But even if the authorities do decide to turn on it, the app has reached the critical mass required for mesh networks to form in some parts of Baghdad.
Benoliel says that the company’s internal research indicates that theoretically, just 7 or 8% of the population need to have the app “to enable you to be connected to someone else more than 93% of the time.” He concedes that in practice, the number required is likely to be larger, but points out that “if you look at famous gaming apps that reached 60% penetration ratio, we are still far from [requiring]that number”.
Even outside of Iraq (and Iran, which is now the company’s third largest market), the ability to talk over mesh networks can come in handy. “You can use it in the tube, you can use it in an airplane, you can use it in a crowded place where you normally wouldn’t have internet access like a concert or some conference venues.” Mesh messages aren’t encrypted in transit, so the app isn’t safe for “secure or private” conversations: it’s “off-the-grid”, but not secret.
Although Firechat is more than just text messaging – it can handle photos and videos, as well – the app itself was originally conceived as little more than a proof of concept for OpenGarden’s technology. “It was supposed to be a test when we launched the app, and we got a huge spike from day one.” Many assumed the app relied on a new technology introduced in Apple’s recently released iOS 7, which is why it came “as a surprise to everybody when we launched on Android a few weeks after.”
But the networking tech which makes it tick is OpenGarden’s own, and in the long run, Benoliel hopes to see it used to enable internet access amongst communities where connectivity is poor or nonexistent. “We believe there are, traditional players in connectivity, like the carriers, and the mobile operators. There is a new breed of player, like Google or Facebook, that are coming to the market with solutions which require billions of dollars of investment, and which can be also sometimes very experimental.”
Then there’s OpenGarden. “We are very pragmatic with our approach. We turn every smartphone, every smart device, into a router, into an internet node, and this can be done with no investment, thanks to a simple app that is completely free.” The company plans to make its own income by charging businesses for a cut of the money they make speaking to customers on the app. “That way, basically, we charge our partners for every dollar they make when normally they wouldn’t be able to make it because they are not connected to a cellular tower or a wifi hotspot.”
Benoliel is at pains to point out that he’s not competing with Facebook’s Internet.org intiative, or Google X’s plan to string up internet-enabled weather balloons over areas with bad connectivity, saying “that’s great, and we need more and more capacity.” But he wears the “disruptive” label with pride.
“Our first motivation has always been to provide free internet, and enable freedom of speech to a maximum number of people. Do I think it’s going to change the world? Definitely.”