Facebook is doing it with drones, Google is doing it with balloons that occasionally crash into power lines. Bringing free Internet access to the unconnected millions in developing countries is complicated and expensive. What if there was an easier way?
A startup called Open Garden thinks the answer is already in people’s pockets: their smartphones.
In the last two years, five million people have downloaded the company’s free Android app Open Garden to create wireless hotspots, and its FireChat app for iPhones and Droids to chat anonymously with other users “off the grid.” The FireChat app suffers from a few bugs and messy, chaotic chat rooms, but what’s tantalizing about both services is that they need no WiFi connection or carrier plan to get connected. Just another person with the app, within a 70-meter radius.
These apps are among the first consumer use cases for a technology known as mesh networking. This refers to the creation of a peer-to-peer “mesh” of smartphones that form their own separate network. If at least one smartphone is online, the rest of the network can not only talk to one another, but connect to the web too.