FireChat Is Bigger Than the Hong Kong Protests
After all the reports of Russian hackers colluding with the Kremlin to disrupt JP Morgan, it's refreshing to see an ingenious piece of Russian-developed software powering the Hong Kong protests. The app, called FireChat, grew out of network engineer Stanislav Shalunov's quest to find ways to use bandwidth more efficiently, and it's just the beginning of a technological path that could change the way we understand connectivity.
A few years ago, Shalunov, a Moscow State University graduate, worked on Internet2, the high-speed network that connects universities and research centers. He worried that when Europe's Large Hadron Collider went online in 2009, it would clog the network with its data, so he went to work on a new data-transfer protocol that would minimize congestion. The idea was to make the data flow react more flexibly to bandwidth availability, the way a runner on a treadmill adjusts to the changes in the machine's speed. (For those interested in the details, here's Shalunov's almost-non-technical, though still somewhat geeky, explanation.)
The Russian's work had exciting implications for BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer file-sharing service that was facing problems with broadband operators for using too much bandwidth. BitTorrent acquired a small company that Shalunov had founded, and by 2011 it was using his flexible protocol for 95 percent of its traffic. Apple, too, adopted it to send updates to users of its software. The torrent app and the system updates could now run in the background without slowing the user's usual Internet activity. "A typical connection on the Internet may only be utilized perhaps 50 percent," Shalunov explained to Fast Company magazine last year. "This basically gives you a free factor of two for how much traffic you can carry on those same connections."
All that unused bandwidth continued to intrigue Shalunov, and his next venture, with Micha Benoliel, who had helped Skype enable calls to smartphones, tried a different approach. The company, OpenGarden, developed a way for mobile users to share Internet connections. Its first app, released in 2012, allowed people to connect to one another over WiFi or BlueTooth, forming a so-called mesh network, using the best connection anyone in the group had at the moment. It's not unlike throwing open several entrances to a subway station where there had been only one: People can then choose the least crowded door.
Shalunov and OpenGarden have not been alone in working on bandwidth sharing. The Spanish telecom giant, Telefonica, is testing a service called BeWifi which lets customers pick their neighbors' unused network capacity by uniting Wi-Fi routers in a mesh network. And lots of other companies have become obsessed with the inefficiency of data transfer on the Internet. Their combined efforts might someday do more for the net neutrality cause than any amount of lobbying and campaigning: At any given moment, there is plenty of unused bandwidth, and it's just a matter of time before content providers and network operators harness it.
Shalunov and Benoliel, meanwhile, posed a question of their own: Why not use mesh networks for messaging? FireChat, which Open Garden released in March, demonstrated this innovative functionality. It automatically connected you to a peer-to-peer network if you were less than 70 meters away from the next user. You could then chat and share photos with the entire FireChat universe or just people near you -- with no Internet connection.
The initial idea was to provide means of communication to people without the money to pay for an Internet connection. Indeed, the app is popular in countries like Nigeria, Cape Verde and Nicaragua. You just need the Internet to download it and then you can go off the institutional grid and onto a peer-to-peer one that's free of charge.
I downloaded FireChat, but quickly erased it. There was no way to chat separately to friends; all chatrooms are open to anyone nearby and full of the predictable white noise, and worse. That, however, is not a problem when you're organizing or participating in street protests. When a big crowd gathers and cellular service grinds to a halt, you can use the "Nearby" function to chat to friends at the same rally. FireChat is now a top-five app in Hong Kong, with hundreds of thousands of downloads, and Shalunov is the closest an engineer can get to a rock star.
He deserves the credit, and then some. FireChat is a highly imperfect communication app, and it's difficult to monetize on its own, but it could be an attractive acquisition target for a giant such as Facebook. Once everyone is using the technology, moving all kinds of data will no longer require the wires and switches that make up the modern Internet. The liberation of bandwidth from institutional gatekeepers would be a more far-reaching revolution than the Hong Kong protests are. It probably also has a better chance of success.
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