In 2010, French entrepreneur Micha Benoliel had a vision: that the world’s billion or so smartphones could be turned into their own network, with each phone acting as a “node” extending the Internet as we know it. He started to raise money for a startup, Open Garden, which would allow phones to communicate directly through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other ubiquitous technologies independent of the Internet and cellular networks. In 2014, as a proof of concept, he built a demo messaging app to take advantage of that network, FireChat.
What happened next is a classic Internet story: The now 18-year-old leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement Joshua Wong called on the protesters to download FireChat to communicate, bypassing overloaded cellular networks and independent of the Internet, should the Chinese government decide to shut it down. In the first 24 hours, 100,000 people in Hong Kong had downloaded and installed the app; by the end of the week, 500,000 accounts had been created (in a city of 7 million).
FireChat was having a moment. We sat down recently with Benoliel, 42, in New York City to talk about what’s next for FireChat and his mission to turn the world’s smartphones into a parallel Internet.
IBTimes: You launched FireChat in March. What was the first sign you were onto something big?
Micha Benoliel: We were a No. 1 app in 15 countries and top 10 in 115 countries. The first important moment was the sunflower movement of students in Taiwan [in April]. The government threatened to shut down access to the Internet so students downloaded the app to keep communicating with students who were inside the parliament and outside the parliament.
What happened next is we saw a spike of users and installs in every country that was limiting access to social networks or messaging apps. We had a spike in Iran, we had a huge spike in Iraq, where we had 40,000 installs in Baghdad in one weekend.
IBTimes: But Hong Kong caught you a bit by surprise, didn’t it?
When it got used in Hong Kong it was a completely surreal experience. In the streets of Hong Kong people come up to me and say thank you for what you did. I was on a layover from Bangalore on my way to San Francisco. I started to see a lot of simultaneous users on FireChat -- suddenly I see 15,000 users on the app in the city of Hong Kong. So I knew something exceptional was happening. I sent screenshots to my employees who know Chinese and they told me the protesters were using the app to organize themselves. Wong said the Chinese government may shut down access to the Internet. They never did, but you had so many people that the mobile networks were congested; they tried Facebook, WeChat, WhatsApp but they didn’t work. When they tried FireChat, they could still exchange messages. They shared spreadsheets and supplies. People were asking for people to bring water, all on FireChat.
IBTimes: Did the Chinese government do anything to try to stop it?
Benoliel: We had some issues toward the peak of the protest. One reason was because so many people were signing up at the same moment, but also because of [domain name system] attacks. When you get visibility you have the good side, but you also become known to a lot of people who basically would not like you to exist.
Certainly many people did not want what was happening to happen. Today it is a symbol of freedom and independence for people. FireChat is a way to shout to the powerful that you will never shut us down because we are building our own network that is independent. That is a very strong symbol.
IBTimes: But this wasn’t the initial purpose of FireChat, was it?
Benoliel: No. The primary intent was to help you be able to message in situations where you don’t have Internet access so we thought about big venues, conferences, large events, concerts, at the ballpark; all these situations where it is very hard to have connectivity. This app would have huge utility by allowing people to still exchange messages. It was used at Burning Man and Coachella.
IBTimes: Does FireChat need Hong Kong-like social events to spread?
Benoliel: I think these events help, but I believe this is going to happen in more and more places in the world. What the app needs is: high density, high penetration of smartphones and the fear of losing the Internet. What we are going after is a market of unconnected masses. We have more than 3 million users. FireChat is very addictive, interactive. When you look at the feed of Twitter and Facebook, after you’ve been on FireChat they are going at a glacial pace by comparison. Its a big chatroom and people reply right away.
IBTimes: Is FireChat a business? Will it make money?
Benoliel: When we launched FireChat we thought it was a demo app. The Open Garden platform is amazing; we have 3,000 developers who want to build on it so we want to open the platform. If they want to use our network they pay us a fee. What we are doing is much more complex than mesh networking; its a routing protocol for 4G, 3G and Wi-Fi; it can aggregate bandwidth. It works the opposite of a cellular tower -- the more people on the network, the better connectivity you can achieve. We believe that’s the new mobile Internet.
IBTimes: So what’s next for FireChat?
Benoliel: What is happening if you look at the macro level you are going to have 5 billion smart devices shipped in the next three years. These 5 billion devices are going to be shipped in a large majority in emerging markets in cities with high-density populations where there is a fear of losing the Internet or the cost of accessing mobile data. FireChat is going to be the first connectivity app in these markets. This will be their first experience with connectivity.