In a bid to go head-to-head against Apple's Find My Friends, Microsoft is reportedly building…
Now that messaging apps (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and the rest of the pack) have firmly entrenched themselves in our minute-to-minute lives, what happens when there’s no network? Frustration, exasperation, and that feeling of sadness, right? Be it your cellular 2G/3G data or WiFi, without a working signal–which is often the case in lifts, stairwells, and at places you need it the most–you’re left stranded. And no matter how high end your phone or how fast a cellular data plan you have, there’s not a thing you can do about it.
Welcome to mesh communications. Here is an interesting new phenomenon that’s changing the way people will communicate. The kicker: it doesn’t need any kind of Internet connection to work. It is based on a pretty ingenious approach to networking, which uses your phone’s own available wireless standards (WiFi, Bluetooth etc) to communicate with other wireless systems that are running on nearby devices. The app that is making this type of ‘Web-less’ networking possible is called FireChat. When installed on an iOS and Android device, it does this work of automatically finding other nearby devices running the app, and it uses these to route messages that in turn ‘hop’ from phone to phone until they reach their destination. If this type of communication sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because FireChat’s creators were deeply involved in the peer-to-peer networking space (one of them was specifically involved in creating a network communication protocol that eventually got acquired by popular torrent downloading application BitTorrent.) Because all communication happens between phones directly, it doesn’t require any Internet connectivity to function.
Where can this application be used?
Ideally, anywhere that there is a high density of smartphones. So if you happen to be with a group of people in a remote area (Survivor, anyone?), or in a location with a very high density of people (a stadium or train station), there’s every chance that traditional cellular networks could either be non-existent or overloaded.
In the mesh networking world, a network is created on the fly, using the mobile device’s own wireless systems–an ad hoc web of hyper-local connectivity formed by people’s own smartphones, if you will. The obvious advantage is that a communication channel is suddenly available, even when traditional forms of wireless data network connectivity aren’t, enabling users to chat ‘off the grid’. Because each user’s device is actually a node on this larger mesh network, the greater the number of devices in a given area, the better the quality of the network. This is diametrically unlike traditional networks that are prone to buckling with the addition of users. Finally, as there is no concept of a centralized system that receives and forwards messages to its users, none of your communications are stored on any server. In fact, all FireChat traces are erased after the app is closed.
So are people actually using mesh networking?
Since the app launched in March this year, the app has been used in some of the most interesting and expansive ways. Most famously, it saw 500,000 downloads over the course of a week during the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations, where citizens leveraged the off-the-grid networking capability of this app to communicate, rally and update other users under threat of cellular networks being shut down. It has also been used in war-ravaged scenarios (the conflict in Baghdad, for example) where cellular connectivity is tenuous.
But there are positive connotations to its utility as well–most recently it has seen extensive usage at the NH7 Weekender events over the course of this month. Given the unreliability of cellular connectivity at the locations of such gigs, attendees have been using FireChat for everything from communicating with each other to figuring out the best travel options, to having real-time conversations with bands and performers.
Even though mesh networks exclusively use each other’s phones to send fragments of communications onward to their destinations, we are told that battery power won’t be significantly affected as the software is capable of utilizing the most efficient communication available. Moreover, because the job of transmitting information is shared among several users, no single device is taxed unnecessarily.
More than just being a catchy, up-and-coming buzzword, mesh networking offers numerous benefits that traditional forms of connectivity never can. Download FireChat here and take it for a spin. And if you have any interesting user experiences to share, we’d love to hear from you.