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Hong Kong Democracy Protesters Give FireChat a Huge Test Run (Video)

"The app can connect the unconnected masses. It can become the Internet of us."

Over the next five years, four billion more smartphones will be shipped — that growth will not come from the U.S. or Europe, but from the rest of the world — where cellular infrastructure can’t handle it. Case in point: During the recent enormous pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the city’s cellular networks got so jammed they collapsed.

As it happened, Micha Benoliel, in Hong Kong on business at the time, got to see his mesh networking app FireChat in its largest test run ever.

At the Code/Mobile conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., today, Benoliel recounted the experience of seeing his app “blow up” and talked about how, as the proliferation of data-hungry smartphones outstrips the growth of cell infrastructure, apps that bypass traditional networks entirely will rise.

FireChat is a six-month-old social network that needs neither cell reception nor the Internet. Instead, it relies on the principle of mesh networking: Cellphones, if packed densely enough, communicate with each other through Wi-Fi signals and Bluetooth, creating their own Internet of proximity, each phone adding to the mesh of mini-providers.

“We thought it was for conferences or Burning Man, that sort of thing,” Benoliel, 42, said a few days before he spoke onstage. “Hong Kong was a big surprise. Really a surprise.”

Within days, 500,000 people in Hong Kong signed up for the app.

Benoliel, who is from Nice in France but now lives in San Francisco, was in Hong Kong for business during the protests this month, and decided to stay an extra 10 days to join the protests and see how his app was being used.

“It was completely surreal,” he said.

He said he suddenly understood how big he could grow this app — an app that he had really only launched as an experiment, part of his larger company, Open Garden. He thought it would just raise awareness about mesh networking. Hong Kong changed his mind.

There are about two billion smartphones in use today, but Benoliel sees FireChat’s future in the five billion phones coming next.

“The growth potential is completely gigantic, but it’s not going to happen here. It’s going to happen in countries where the infrastructure really sucks,” he said. “The app can connect the unconnected masses. It can become the Internet of us.”

There’s an added benefit to mesh networking: Cellphone plans are often very expensive. If enough people have smartphones in your densely packed city, you could just live on mesh networking, creating an Internet of your community.

“It was just a demo app,” he said. “Now we’ll turn it into a new generation of social network.”

Here, his full speech at Code/Mobile in video and text:

Good afternoon. I am Micha of Open Garden. We made an app called FireChat. I am here with you to share the story of something that started just a month ago.

It’s September 28. I am in Hong Kong on a layover from Bangalore. I have a flight to San Francisco tomorrow morning.

It’s 2 pm on Sunday afternoon. Something big is happening.

I am looking at the number of simultaneous users in Hong Kong. In the last half hour, it jumped from a few hundreds to 15,000. I know I won’t be flying to San Francisco tomorrow.

I ended up staying 10 days in Hong Kong. Through these 10 days, we saw 500,000 sign-ups. Hong Kong is an island with seven million people.

How did that happen?

joshua wong firechat

This is Joshua Wong. He just turned 18 years old. Joshua was concerned the government would shut down access to the Internet, so he recommended that all students get FireChat.

Well, the government didn’t shut down access to the Internet. But when the students tried to use WhatsApp, or Facebook, that did not work. That’s because they were so many people in the streets that the networks were congested.

The government had nothing to do with that.

firechat

The students remembered they had this app on their phone called FireChat. They tried it and it worked.

From then on, FireChat is the tool they used to organize themselves, discussing staffing, arranging for supplies, sharing information about the movements of the police. Etc …

More than 2M different chatrooms were created in Hong Kong alone in the last month.

Here is another way to look at what happened. This is a very large community of people, a crowd, coming together to achieve something. They are doing this collectively, using a tool that is independent of any infrastructure.

The only thing you need is a smartphone and free software. With that software and your phone, you and all the other members of your community you create your own network.

This is what we call the Internet of us.

firechat

Let’s put this in perspective. Twitter shared information on the volume of tweets related to the protests, which were published by the South China Morning Post.

Over the first four days, they were 1.3 million tweets related to the Kong Kong protests, and that’s worldwide. During the same beautiful time there were two million chat sessions on FireChat, and that is in Hong Kong alone.

We all know what a tweet is: Up to 140 characters of text, maybe with one image. A chat session in FireChat is a live discussion between people. There could be two or thousands of people in any chatroom. The average duration of these chat sessions during that time was three minutes and a half.

When I landed in Hong Kong I was wondering why we did not have many users in Hong Kong.

In one week, a community of 500,000 people used FireChat to create a new generation of network and organize a massive movement.

firechat

There will be some five billion new mobile devices coming onto the market over the next three years.

Peer-to-peer connections between mobile devices will create a new generation of network that is independent of centralized infrastructure and powers.

This will enable a new generation of services and innovation, in the fields of communications, gaming, payments and many others.

We are Open Garden.

Together, let’s create the Internet of us.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.