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Monthly Archives: January 2016

This App Could be Using the Future’s (Decentralized) Internet

New apps pop up in Apple’s App Store every day, some with more fanfare than others. FireChat, a messaging app, showed up quietly. The free tool didn’t have big-name cachet or the kind of sexy hook that has propelled services like Whisper and Secret into Next Big Thing territory. If you download it now, there’s not a whole lot going on; it’s still new and underutilized. But FireChat, which was developed by peer-to-peer Internet sharing company Open Garden, is potentially one of the most important apps in the App Store: It could take the idea of a mesh net mainstream.

And what is a mesh net, exactly? A mesh network is an alternative to the Internet, based on connections that move from device to device. So for FireChat, if I download it and talk to someone in my area who also has the app, we can exchange messages without using data or going through a centralized network. Mesh networks create resilient communication channels because, like a chain of mesh, the small inter-device links create a hard-to-ruin connection.

Anyone with the know-how can set one up, and they can be configured to adjust automatically to the availability of bandwidth and other resources, so once a mesh net is up, it is very hard to destroy. In fact, a mesh network is basically as hard to murder as Voldemort. To shut down a mesh net, you need to shut down every single individual connecting point, just as Voldemort’s horcruxes kept him alive even when his main body was destroyed. Except mesh nets aren’t evil wizards, so we’re good.

Done right, a mesh net will be immune to firewalls and government Internet bans, something important to consider for countries with censored Internet like China and Egypt (and something that may be of special interest to people in Turkey after the Twitter ban debacle). They can also come in handy during emergencies, when Internet service goes out (in fact, an Australian organization created a mesh net called Serval specifically for this reason). They can also be cheaper than the regular Internet. Micha Benoliel, Open Garden’s CEO, believes establishing mesh nets is necessary to building better overall connectivity. “We need to create small Internets that can function on their own and [then] connect them to the big Internet,” he told Technology Review.

FireChat serves as an excellent prototype for mobile mesh networking tools. It allows users to communicate with people nearby without using the Internet or cell reception. FireChat creates new, highly localized networks using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi that allow phones to connect to each other directly. This is called “multipeer connectivity.”

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