It’s 2014 and the Chinese government is beginning to censor the internet because thousands of pro-democracy supporters took to the streets to challenge limitations of voter rights. Usually, the loudest voices in this scenario would be quickly silenced, however, an app called FireChat is beginning to shift some of the power back to the people. Firechat is built around the idea of a mesh network. These networks enable people to stay connected even when there is no internet. They allow you to anonymously communicate with other nearby people by sending messages directly to them or through others who participate in the network. Let’s say Alice, Bob and Charles are part of the new meshnet. Alice lives on the west side of the neighborhood, Bob lives in the center, and Charles lives on the east side. If Alice wants to send a message to Charles, she can send an encrypted message from her cell phone, route it through Bob’s cell phone (who can’t see it because it’s encrypted), and it will then appear on Charles’ phone.
FireChat was downloaded over 200,000 times within 48 hours during this period of unrest. Information is power and technology like this will make it more available to the people who need it most. FireChat was used in similar situations in Iran and Afghanistan, and it’s also used when cell towers are knocked out by natural disasters. There are disadvantages to using meshnets too, they require more processing power, and the latency can become problematic since the data needs to wirelessly hop through more nodes. There are plenty of other projects that are pushing for the use of mesh-networks. Take a look at the meshnet in New York. Commotion Wireless has a good getting started guide for building your own mesh-net. MaidSafe is another interesting project that’s getting a lot of attention. I could see a dedicated device being sold that acts as a wireless mesh-router. If it made its way into a majority of homes within a densely populated city, then intracity communication could be free. Of course, this meshnet would be separate from the internet, which would make it ripe for new applications and services. Someone could connect the meshnet to the internet as well – there are a lot of different ways to approach this. If you’re interested in this concept, please watch HBO’s Silicon Valley.