By Bala Sai:
With awareness of and desire for technology growing faster than technology itself, and internet connectivity emerging as a necessity for survival, we have gravitated towards a heavy dependence on telecommunication networks to keep us connected. Raging debates on net-neutrality have sparked a need for an alternative. When cyclone Hudhud wreaked havoc in Andhra Pradesh last year, it destroyed 70% of the state’s communication infrastructure, making it difficult for volunteers to coordinate rescue efforts. For quite some time now, we have begun to see the gaps in communication that need to be filled. We have acknowledged the need for an underground messaging application that is sturdy and reliable and can work in places with zero network penetration. FireChat is a new messaging app that hopes to fill the gap.
Crisis is the best incentive for innovation. We have seen instances of technology breaking new ground during social unrests around the world. Be it the Blackberry Messenger during London Riots or Twitter during the Arab Spring – technology has risen to the occasion, informing and assisting protesters. However, in October last year, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were presented with a unique problem – the possibility of the government blocking out the internet all together. All the traditional channels and social media platforms become irrelevant in the face of an internet-shutdown, like vague, distant echoes in the din of darkness. But as always, technology found a way out. It was the discovery of a new kind of internet, illuminating nooks beyond the reach of the conventional networks. That was how Hong Kong discovered FireChat.
FireChat is a new, ground-breaking innovation in messaging, a practical application of mesh networking – a concept hailed by experts as the future of internet. Conventional networks are pretty much like the postal system. You deposit your letters into little red post boxes (servers), where it rests until a postman (network) comes by and dispatches it to the appropriate address. Governments like China and Iraq exert their power by controlling the post boxes, ie., the intermediaries. Mesh Networking, on the other hand, eliminates the post office altogether, by simply converting your phone into its own little postbox and its own postman, so you don’t need a telecommunication network at all.
The publicity generated by the Hong Kong protests has lead to a spike in downloads, as the world paused to take note of the new runner in the race. Soon, anti-Putin protests in Russia saw Alexy Navalny openly recommending FireChat to his followers. Ripples were made in Taiwan and Iraq, also in protests. However, people are waking up to its other utilities too, like communication in crowded areas like sports stadiums and music festivals where networks are congested, engaging directly with celebrities and brands during cultural events and establishing public chat-rooms in airplanes and subways. FireChat, for its part, is growing and adapting constantly, feeding off its own popularity, making it the hot new commodity in the world of apps.
In India, FireChat is still in its nascent stage, and has already breached the 1 million mark. We caught up with Marina Azcarate of Open Garden, and here she answers our questions on FireChat, net-neutrality and more.
What does Fire Chat bring to the social experience viz-a-viz the technology and the concept?
It is a many-to-many messaging application which works without access to the internet, so that the devices, once equipped with the application, can contact each other in a range of about 40-70 meters and they can make use of their radio capacities, essentially their Bluetooth and peer-to-peer wifi to exchange information between one another without the dependence on telecom infrastructure.
The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Were you surprised at the attention your app garnered during the protests?
Yes. Definitely yes. We were quite unprepared. Actually the success of the application exceeded all of our expectations because it was fairly new, having just been launched in March last year. It is a very recent technology and hence we were pleasantly surprised by the response.
How did the Hong Kong experience help FireChat? How has it been since?
The visibility of the app has obviously skyrocketed. User base has grown quickly. Right now we have 5 million users worldwide and half a million from Honk Kong, which is an island of only 6 million people, so it is quite big an accomplishment. It has accelerated the development of some new features of the app. For example, the verified accounts of musicians or artists was a feature which was developed for Hong Kong as a means of verifying information that was coming from journalists.
After the protests subsided, has there been a fall in the number of downloads or are people still sticking to it?
No, no. Not at all. It is a useful communication tool especially in markets where connectivity is poor, like markets in Latin America, for instance, as it establishes a person-to-person communication. Also, the app has an online mode, so when it is connected to the internet it allows communities to talk to each other, to communicate at scale.
Perhaps due to the stupendous success of the app in Honk Kong and in places like Russia and Iraq and the publicity that has followed, FireChat has garnered an image as a protest-app. How accurate is the perception and does that bother you?
There is that image, but actually we are developing new usages for the app in the world of media, sports, disaster relief, and entertainment. For example, we saw a huge surge in India during the Bacardi NH7 weekender as we had a lot of material to share about this particular event, like pictures, videos, screenshots, etc. We introduced verified accounts for bands at the festival, so this allowed the festival goers to talk live with bands like The Raghu Dixit Project, Indian Ocean, the Reggae Rajahs, etc . So this is entering the new usage for the application, quite removed from the protest image.
Right now we are continuing to explore the world of entertainment so we have launched a specific platform for Delhi and Mumbai, which is about cultural happenings, events, etc. So, right now we are covering the India art fair.
Fire Chat generally markets itself based on the off-the-grid chatting facility that you provide. How is that faring in comparison to your online chatrooms?
They are complementary actually. The chatrooms work both online and offline. We don’t know what happens off the grid because there is no server. Basically the devices are talking with each other, and hence we cannot quantify it. We know it is happening. It is happening more and more on airplanes, for example; people are using it to stay in touch with people who they are travelling with, when they are separated physically on the airplane. But we cannot quantify that usage.
In a nascent, relatively untapped market like India, where it is yet to attain widespread usage, is there a concern that it could be used by anti-social elements looking to connect off the grid? Is that a genuine concern?
It is not a concern. We are interested in practically drawing the usage towards good, working with NGOs, disaster relief organizations, etc. I don’t have any comments because we do not know what happens. When it is off the grid, we have no way of knowing anything.
Is that something you are looking to address in the future?
We can’t see it, and we can’t quantify it and we have no way of knowing what happens off the grid. We can’t address that. What we are doing is we are building usage for what constitutes the good.
But there is a risk?
Yes. But it is not a risk because we can’t do anything to address it from that point of view. Its like telling a walkie-talkie manufacturer that they need to do something to address the usages of their walkie-talkies.
Fire Chat is based on mesh networking technology. So do you think it is the future of the internet?
Well, yes. We know it is the future of the internet. That existing infrastructure is wanting for scale is a known fact. In India, for example, we have a rapidly growing rate of smartphone penetration, people are data hungry and are hungry to communicate, but the current infrastructure is not scaling. It is very time consuming and expensive to build more towers. We think that any form of internet, any form of networking that alleviates the dependency on tower communication is bound to have a bright future.
Particularly in the developing countries?
Not just in developing countries, but everywhere. Even in developed countries, anywhere people congregate, there is network congestion. This happened in Paris a few weeks ago when people took to the streets. The network collapsed, and people used FireChat to communicate. In sports stadiums, public transport, music festivals, even in developed and highly connected markets, the networks just can’t cope.
What is your view on net-neutrality as an issue and how does mesh networking contribute in ensuring net neutrality? What is its potential in this regard?
We stand strongly in favor of net neutrality and of course any type of tool that promotes peer to peer communication is in favor of net neutrality. With FireChat you are just using the radio capacity in devices and the telecom provider is not even in the picture. So our technology will help in ensuring net neutrality. It works without access to internet, and it is free.
Fire Chat is being likened to a huge loudspeaker because it is a public chat-room. Isn’t that a potential breeding ground for spammers? We all know how spam and ads taint the social experience. How does Fire Chat tackle that?
There is a function in Fire Chat to block people whose messages you don’t want to see. So that’s a way. If you don’t want to see a message, you just block it. We follow chat rooms closely and we haven’t seen that much of a problem with spam so far.
How does the future of Fire Chat look like in India? What makes it a potential market?
The future is bright. We already have 1 million users in India. And with initiatives like our chat-room called Dekho gaining attention, more and more people are going to realize the value of the application. So, the future is very bright for Fire Chat in India.
What are your challenges in establishing yourself here, given India is a market already dominated by apps like Whatsapp?
There is no challenge. No competition. There is no technology that allows so many people- up to 10,000 people to speak in one chat-room or has the capacity of speaking off the grid.
When there are 10,000 users live in a chat-room, doesn’t that make it a little chaotic?
It also makes it very dynamic and quite addictive. The speed, once you have so many people in one chat-room, is unprecedented. It is four times quicker than Twitter, which used to be the fastest platform till now.
To join ‘Dekho’, follow this link from your mobile: http://firech.at/Dekho