For When You’re Inciting A Revolution Or In A Disaster, A Way To Send Mobile Messages Completely Off The Grid

Firechat offers a way to communicate with people on your cell phone in times when the infrastructure is broken–or when you fear that it is being used to spy on you.

For When You’re Inciting A Revolution Or In A Disaster, A Way To Send Mobile Messages Completely Off The Grid
[Image: Mobile phone cameras capture protest moments, Egypt Revolution via Flickr user Darla دارلا Hueske]

Firechat, a mesh networking app that makes it possible to talk to other people who also have the app, even when no Internet connection or cell-phone reception is available, just got a little bit more useful. Previously, users could only communicate with others on their same platform–but now, with the latest version, Firechat Love, iOS and Android users can chat with each other.


If you’re wondering why this is a big deal, consider the fact that 40,000 Iraqis downloaded the app between June 14 and June 24, using it as a way to circumvent censorship. Or that Firechat became the most popular iOS app in Taiwan this past Spring in the wake of student protests, which sparked fears that on-grid modes of communication might be cut off. Firechat has quickly turned out to be a powerful tool for people affected by censorship and political disaster.

In the future, it could also be a used as a communications tool in places where cell-phone reception is unreliable–or where it has been taken down by natural disaster.

Mesh networking technology makes use of a cell phone’s wireless signals, allowing it to communicate with other nearby devices. Instead of connecting a phone to a cell-phone tower or to a Bluetooth device, mesh networking can be used to connect directly to other phones.

“Say someone is at a coffee shop or library and they access the Internet through a public Wi-Fi access point. A device that talks to an [Internet] access point can be used to talk to another device even without access to the Internet,” explains Christophe Daligault, CMO of Open Garden, the company behind Firechat. “That’s the underlying technology.”

Here’s where it get interesting. An off-grid cell phone can talk to any other cell phone with Firechat that’s in a 210-foot vicinity. But phones that are close to each other can form a “mesh,” making it possible for users that are far from each other to communicate. If I’m a mile away from another Firechat user, but there are enough Firechat users between us, we can still communicate with each other off the grid. The app gains power as more people use it.

Download Firechat and you might not immediately see its utility. In places with cell-phone reception, Firechat can be used over regular networks to communicate with anyone, no matter the distance. It quickly turns into a free for all, with lots of people saying crude things in anonymous chat rooms. But in case of emergency, like a big earthquake that takes down cell-phone reception or a nasty turn of events in the political world, it’s worth having on your phone.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.