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Tahiti Will Use FireChat To Let Citizens Communicate After Hurricanes

An app that doesn’t require cell service that’s normally used by protesters is being harnessed for getting messages out in times of disasters.

Tahiti Will Use FireChat To Let Citizens Communicate After Hurricanes
[Top Photo: GREGORY BOISSY/AFP/Getty Images]

French Polynesia is expecting bad weather. By the end of the year, it reckons on a 90% chance of a hurricane. When you live on a system of 118 islands and atolls, scattered across 2,000 miles of ocean, hurricanes are a big problem. Another big problem, in the wake of such a disaster, is communication.

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To deal with the expected disasters, the country is turning to FireChat, a communications service that connects phones together without the Internet. Open Garden, the company behind FireChat, has teamed up with Smart Tahiti Networks (STN) and the City of Arue to trial a network based on FireChat.

FireChat uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to let phones communicate directly with each other. These communications can be public, like a service broadcast, or private, like an encrypted text message. Both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are short-range protocols, so FireChat creates a mesh network to get around this. Imagine you’re in a city, and you want to get a message to somebody on the other side of town. FireChat leapfrogs your message from phone to phone, and the message steps across many handsets until it reaches its destination. The “network” is built on the fly, as it’s needed.

Pal Teravagimov via Shutterstock

It’s a great way for campers and hikers to stay in touch out of cell range, or to chat with friends in crowded venues, like sports events, when the cell networks are overloaded. It’s also perfect when all other communications structure has been flattened by freak weather.

“The ability to share early warning messages in real time across the islands is very useful for our country, especially during this period of hurricane watch,” said Teva Rohfritsch, French Polynesia’s minister of digital strategy.

Arue, where the trial begins, is on the northern edge of Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia. The city has a population of 9,500, the island 170,000. The FireChat network brings other advantages, too: It’s not just for emergency use. Locals can also use it as a free chat network. “Arue is the one of the first cities in the world to create a free network for citizens to communicate,” says Arue’s mayor, Philip Schyle.

It’s interesting to see a government helping to deploy such a technology, because mesh networks like FireChat have one other excellent use case: protests. FireChat users can keep talking and coordinate civil disobedience, even if their governments pull the plug on nearby cell towers. Tahiti doesn’t seem to be worried about that, though. “I’m sure this app will deliver many other benefits, but that’s what we’re the most interested in, at the level of the government,” says Rohfritsch.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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