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17 December 2019

Meet FireChat, an app people use when internet is blocked or network not available

FireChat is an app that relies on Bluetooth and WiFi Direct to connect to their phones even when there is no internet and then allow people to talk.



HIGHLIGHTS
  • FireChat uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct to create a network between available phones in an area.
  • This is the reason why it doesn’t require internet to work.
  • In areas with blocked internet, some people use FireChat to communicate.

How can you communicate when internet is blocked, something that is happening with alarming regularity in India nowadays? There aren't many good options. But if you aim to communicate while you are out in a group, for example if you are at a cricket stadium watching a match with friends and want to talk to each other even if there is no internet, you can use FireChat. This is a chat app that works without internet, something that has also made it fairly popular with protesters who seemingly rely on it to talk to each other even when authorities have blocked internet.
FireChat is a peer-to-peer chat app - in other words messages sent through it hop from one phone to other - and it uses technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct (peer-to-peer Wi-Fi). This is the reason why the app has found favours with protesters in Iraq, Ecuador, Spain and even in some protests in Indian cities. It has been created by a company called Open Garden. The app is available for the iPhone as well as Android phones.
How does Firechat work? The idea is quite simple:
- FireChat uses Wi-Fi Direct or Bluetooth to create a mesh network, a network that grows in coverage area the more people are using it. For example, if there are 100 people using FireChat in a close area - say a stadium - these 100 people can exchange messages if they are sitting close to each other. What this means is that if Person 99 is sitting 300 meters away from you, out of your phone's Bluetooth coverage area, you can still send a message to him or her because there will be 98 other FireChat users between you and that person, and the message will jump from one phone to other.
- Th range for two smartphone users to talk to each other is around 200 feet.
- Here is how FireChat describes itself: "FireChat works even without an Internet connection or cellular phone coverage. Use it anywhere: planes, public transportation, cruise ships, campuses, and crowded events. All you need is a few people around you using FireChat."
-FireChat allows sending of messages and pictures, including private messages that the app says are peer-to-peer encrypted.
- FireChat uses allows users to create chat rooms, private as well as public.
- If and when internet is available, FireChat works like a regular chat app.
- To use FireChat you must install it on a phone and create a FireChat account.
While the app sounds useful, and it indeed offers useful means of communication, it has limits. The biggest limit is that the app works well in close spaces such as a stadium, or a place where a lot of people have gathered. This is because to create its mesh network, it needs phone users and those phone users must have FireChat installed as well as have their Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth working.
FireChat is not a substitute for a regular internet-based application like WhatsApp, and it is definitely not as reliable as a regular chat app. It is also not as secure because it is using technologies - Bluetooth - that by their nature are open technologies. For example, if you can join the mesh network created by FireChat, so can others. In 2014, FireChat developer told Wired website, "People need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who's hostile ... It was not meant for secure or private communications."
But may be when the choice is between a total communication blackout because network is saturated or not available and a not-so-secure messaging, it's easy to see the choice people will make. That seems to be the value of FireChat.

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