Off-the-grid connectivity,

un-internet… and green stones

FireChat, the mesh networking tool made famous when it was used by Hong Kong students during the so-called umbrella revolution late last year, who used it to coordinate their protests, has just been awarded the prize for Innovation in connecting people at the SXSW annual arts festival in Austin, Texas, and has announced the development of GreenStone, a small device or beacon that acts like a connectivity node and message exchange point, giving greater reach to networks created by FireChat.

The idea of FireChat came about as a communications solution for large scale events such as demonstrations or festivals in places with little or no internet connection, or where the net was likely to be saturated. The idea is to provide connectivity off the grid, outside the internet, through mesh networks in which each device acts like a node to transmit messages between users or by organizers.

Launched in March 2014, it began by being used in Iraq as a way round government restrictions on the internet, and from there to Hong Kong in a bid to circumvent the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance, despite the app’s creators, Open Garden, warning that this was not the use they intended and that employing it to avoid being snooped on by the authorities could create problems for users: messages are not encrypted and should be understood as public communication, in the same way as somebody who publishes something on a Twitter open account, only allowing users to use a nickname. Either way, it is an effective communications solution in certain situations.

The small device, designed to be sold cheaply, comes with a battery that lasts a year, and requires no configuration, allowing immediate use, and is even waterproof. It also has a light sensor, an accelerometer, and connectivity via Bluetooth LTE. When somebody with the FireChat app passes within six meters or less of a beacon, this receives up to 1,000 messages, stores them, and sends them out to everybody who passes nearby. The idea is to increase the reach of networks by using cheaper devices than smartphones.

Communication on these networks takes place outside the internet and without the need for a connection, prompting some to dub it “the un-internet”. Users with connectivity can continue using their traditional devices, leaving FireChat for other purposes. How it will be used is still undecided, but we cold find these green stones in stadiums, festivals, or other large-scale events being used to connect people up through instant messaging, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, as happened with FireChat, they were put to other uses to provide connectivity outside the internet.

(En español, aquí)

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