FireChat: The Network without a Network

By Kristin Cotter and Andrew Mascelli

Imagine a boring commute on your local underground metro system. Now picture a weekend getaway to a ski lodge nestled amid mountain peaks. Finally, consider a hypothetical situation in which you were living in Haiti on January 12th 2010 when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake caused catastrophic devastation to the population, the government, and the infrastructure of the island nation. In all of these situations, would you have your cell phone with you?

You should, because despite pesky underground signal loss, geographic seclusion, and even natural disaster, communications technology can still find a way to keep you connected. This is the benefit that FireChat©, developed by Open Garden Inc. and available for both Apple and Android devices, offers for free with the use of its application. The application, capable of operating completely independently of a cell phone signal or wireless network, is designed to allow users to exchange information even without the benefit of standard communication networks.
Utilizing “Multipeer Connectivity” (MPC) frameworks or “mesh” networks, FireChat turns every smartphone equipped with its app into a miniature “node.” Nodes within Bluetooth or Wi-Fi range are capable of connecting and exchanging both text and photo messages as long as they are within about 100 feet of one another without having to rely on cellular or wireless Internet networks. Information transmitted to other devices on these ad hoc mesh networks can be forwarded to still other devices, resulting in a “daisy chain” of communications capability. Mesh networks can provide Internet access in remote or denied areas that may have unreliable coverage under corporate providers or no coverage at all.
FireChat represents a development in communications technology that reduces users’ reliance on communication network infrastructure. In a situation, say an earthquake, where telecommunications infrastructure is brought down or otherwise unavailable, the ability to wirelessly communicate with those around you might prove invaluable as a lifesaving tool. Having the capability of disseminating information in a localized area quickly and without risk of outside interference could give HA/DR operators the kind of dedicated and flexible communications network they need for operating on the ground, where anything from signal interference to total Internet blackout could diminish capabilities. Rescue operators could also monitor any MPC network activity in searches for people in need of assistance. The short-range limitations of mesh networking, while restrictive, would also give operators a very small search radius for survivors using MPC to communicate. Mesh networks provided New Yorkers with a crucial lifeline in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. A satellite Internet connection was installed at one location and Internet access was subsequently spread across the community by means of the mesh network, since such networks may access the Internet at one or more points and share this access to other connected devices. This aided both relief workers and local residents.
Aside from disaster opportunities, there have been instances in the past several years when governments have willfully denied their populations access to Internet and other communications networks. The Arab Spring was notorious for exactly this type of behavior on the part of besieged governments in Libya and Egypt. FireChat allows local people to share information and mobilize without government supervision, thereby facilitating protests. The device-to-device information sharing established by FireChat prevents the government and attackers from intercepting and accessing the message content because it bypasses the Internet and central servers. Thus the creation of a separate, local network is a more effective way to ensure privacy and security.
In sum, the resiliency and simplicity of MPC and mesh networks such as FireChat make them ready tools for crisis coordination and extremely useful in broadcasting and sharing information. FireChat offers immense rewards to populations post-conflict and post-disaster, not to mention life-changing access to impoverished communities. The potential of these networks is as unlimited as the connectivity that they offer.


About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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