The virtual world is still a libertarian one: there’s limited government, no domineering hierarchy as yet and all collaboration online is voluntary.

But still the Internet exists in the singular, which means that if a government or big tech player does find a way to dominate it or control it people who care about this sort of thing have nowhere else to go.

Inevitably, someone’s going to move off the reservation and set up their own internet. This has happened with the mesh network movement where groups of users set up their own peer-to-peer networks.

The most exciting innovator in this movement is Open Garden and was founded in 2011 by three engineers – Micha Benoliel, Stanislav Shalunov and Greg Hazel. They offer mesh networking technology in a free mobile app also named Open Garden.

This download allows users to access WiFi hotspots quicker and share connectivity with other Open Garden users in proximity. The value-add, according to CEO Micha Benoliel, is faster and more efficient on-the-go connectivity.

FireChat

Their latest innovation is FireChat, an app that uses mesh technology to offer users an IM service. It is able to operate outside the Internet and the local cell network.

Instead it relies on the proximity of other FireChat users by using the wireless radios in the phone via Bluetooth or Wifi to connect directly to the smartphones around; the denser that local mesh, the better, with broadcasts being picked up by  devices in a daisy chain formation, then being forwarded on to other users who are just out of range of the original sender. The range of the app is 150 feet. One of the nodes in this daisy chain can also post the message on the Internet itself. All content sent out using Firechat is sent to a chat room.

In the promotional adverts for FireChat, the creators clearly envisaged this iteration of the app as a social media tool with limited reach. But the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong found another application. In mid-October thousands of Hong Kongers came out to protest against Bejing’s interference in local politics.

During the week the demonstrations occurred, according to TechCrunch, FireChat was downloaded  460,000 times and the app supported 5.1 million chat sessions in Hong Kong.

One of the main drivers of its popularity is that users of the FireChat chat rooms are anonymous, the kind of thing that comes in handy when protesting against a totalitarian state.

Aside from mass protests where the government has shut down access to the internet, there are other scenarios where FireChat can have widespread application. These are situations where demand for connectivity outstrips the supply offered by the local infrastructure. India is a country with a population of 1 bn and a primitive telephony network, investment in the infrastructure is well behind demand for mobile services and as a consequence the service is prohibitively expensive.

Smartphones, however, are within most people’s budget, leading to a situation where millions of Indians have a smartphone but can’t afford the carrier service.

Firechat-Downloads-by-country

FireChat, which is free to download and use, could go some way in offering a remedy to this. It certainly provides a solution in rural communities where residents live in proximity of each other, but out of the reach of mobile networks.

Open Garden’s offering is beginning to sound very much like the original mobile cellular technology: when it was first rolled out it allowed underdeveloped countries to leap frog the traditional stages of technological development. While it’s still in its early days, FireChat might enable these same countries to leapfrog the full development of cellular infrastructure.

Additionally, it offers a rough and ready communication system in a disaster zone if much of the communications infrastructure has been destroyed, again echoing one of the original advantages of the early internet: the original internet was developed as a way to provide a government communication system after a nuclear attack on the US.

Very soon you will see that people start to consider connectivity as the proximal connectivity, that means you with your devices and your community nearby and then connectivity to Internet. So it’s like you’ll see the birth of disparate networks that connect from time to time to bigger Internet.

                                                                          Micha Benoliel, CEO Open Garden

Open Garden admit that currently the user experience for FireChat is “pretty rough” but they say they’re working to make it more efficient. The app is, however, available to everyone at no cost so users aren’t risking anything by downloading it and using it.

The monetisation for Open Garden will come with users paying for an upgrade for expanded functionality. Yet the question persists: most of the time mobile connectivity for people, certainly in the developed world, is good so from where would the demand come for an app like FireChat?

Mesh networks offer an alternative to the Internet, they could be useful if local access to the Internet drops off like a tech conference where WiFi portals become bottlenecked. This technology is also a good investment in the future because no-one knows how the Internet will evolve, it’s always good to have a Plan B and this could be found in a more developed version of FireChat. We’ll keep you posted.