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Big at SXSW: FireChat Bypass Cellular and WiFi Networks

·Special Contributor, Yahoo! Tech

SXSW Breakout App: FireChat

A relatively new app called FireChat is on fire here at South by Southwest. It’s a communication tool for posting messages. What’s unique about it: No cell service or even Wi-Fi networks are needed.  Co-founder and CEO Micha Benoliel says, “It’s the first app that comes with its own network.” Wait, what does that even mean?

Traditionally, data and text messages travel over a mobile network by going from your phone to the nearest cell tower or Wi-Fi hotspot and are routed over a complex network, then eventually to other cell towers or networking hardware to the recipient. FireChat doesn’t need towers. It doesn’t even need a Wi-Fi router like Whatsapp does; it relays data from phone to phone to phone via the wireless technologies that are built into the phone. As long as devices are running FireChat and are within about 100 feet of each other, FireChat can build its own network.

Previously: FireChat Network-Free Chat Could Be Big. And Now It’s on Android

Your phone has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios built into it; Bluetooth connects to your earpiece or car; and Wi-Fi usually connects to a router. But those same wireless signals can connect to other phones, both Android and iPhone. Benoliel says, ”It forms a peer-to-peer mesh network. The phones daisy-chain to each other.”  FireChat works in any situation, whether you are connected to the Internet or not, even in airplane mode, as long as Bluetooth is on.

The app was used at the last Burning Man, where spotty cell coverage is the rule: Sharing info on FireChat helped people figure out what was happening where. FireChat really gained momentum in Hong Kong last fall. Afraid authorities would turn off cell and Wi-Fi access, 500,000 protesters downloaded FireChat in a seven-day period. Benoliel traveled to Hong Kong to see what was happening: “The most amazing thing was when you were in the crowd, but people on FireChat were having a conversation and helping each other.”

That ad hoc use in Hong Kong leads to thoughts of similar mesh networks erupting in emergencies. Imagine cell towers go down in an earthquake, but smartphone to smartphone networks form using Firechat. How different would the communication nightmares of Katrina have been if a phone-to-phone network filled the void?  And Benoliel imagines an even greater use in emerging markets where cellphone infrastructure doesn’t yet exist: “In the coming three years, you’re going to have 5 billion small smartphones on the planet. Most of these will be shipped in emerging markets, where very often people cannot pay for a data plan, or where connectivity is lacking.”

But the app’s everyday usefulness is a little harder to imagine, in part because there are no private messages yet. Everything is posted publicly, like an old-school AOL bulletin board. Even here at SXSW, the feed is sophomoric at best. I’m seeing too many posts like “Hi,” “Hey,” “What’s happening,” and “Weather’s nice.” The messages only stay live for three hours, Benoliel told me; they are not archived or searchable right now. You can search for people nearby, but I had some trouble finding a colleague who was a stone’s throw away from me running the app; it’s not completely user-friendly right now.

The real power of the app will come when FireChat gets private messaging. Security and privacy are the issue here, because we’re talking about private messages being relayed by strangers’ phones.

For now, the possibility of new hyperlocal networks has this SXSW crowd and investors hyper-interested in FireChat.