Micha Benoliel, the man behind free messaging app FireChat wants to expand the service into a full-blown mobile network gratis.
If you’re not familiar with FireChat, it’s a relatively new messaging app (it launched last year) created by San Francisco-based startup Open Garden, headed up by Benoliel and unlike seemingly obvious competitors including WhatsApp, Messenger and to a lesser degree Reddit, FireChat doesn’t rely on a mobile network or mobile data in order to function.
Instead the app pipes its communications through a peer-to-peer mesh network created by its users, filing messages over active Bluetooth and WiFi connections and naturally, the more users, the stronger and more efficient the network becomes.
FireChat’s offline qualities have proven their worth in both disaster zones such as Typhoon Hagupit in the Philippines last year and political demonstrations, such as the democratic protests in Hong Kong. Of the six million downloads the app has received across iOS and Android since its launch 110,000 of those took place in a 24-hour period during the Hong Kong demonstrations alone.
If it isn’t evident, there’s clear potential to expand FireChat into more than just a messaging platform and that’s exactly what Benoliel hopes to do. In a conversation with Wired he explained, “There’s a huge opportunity — in three or four years, you’ll have four to five billion smartphones on the market, 80 per cent of them in emerging markets, 80 per cent of those in big cities where people don’t necessarily pay for data. We want to go after that market. We believe we can take a big share of it.”
Open Garden plans to add voice support into the app in the near future, which will serve as the first step towards building a full-blown ‘offline’ mobile network. Provided the company can build an infrastructure using the existing mesh peer-to-peer network that can accommodate the added load of these voice communications, FireChat could become the world’s first free carrier – built entirely on software.
Benoliel admits that there are “many challenges” that the company faces before such a concept can be fully realised, but its success ultimately hinges on people downloading and using the service now to build a bigger, better network as a foundation for the push to become a carrier.