Jun 5 2014, 12:52pm CDT | by Forbes
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.
Since March, 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.
The technology sounds unreal, but it works. After it launched last March, FireChat instantly became the top social networking app in Taiwan. The reason: around 100,000 activists in Taipei had taken to the streets to protest a trade agreement with China, and local blogs like this one urged them to download FireChat — just in case the government shut down web access.
In the end there was no shut-down, but people still used FireChat to remind one another to be safe, and communicate with student activists occupying the parliament, according to Open Garden. Many activists even found themselves arguing with other FireChat users on mainland China about the trade agreement they were protesting. These kinds of cross-border debates are almost unheard of on popular Chinese chat services like WeChat or Sina Weibo thanks to Beijing’s firewall.
There’s been similar interest for FireChat in Iran. Users in the country have started 1,800 FireChat groups, according to Open Garden, making Iran the second biggest user of the app after the United States. India, Brazil and Mexico follow close behind, and Open Garden says people in Cairo and on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq are using the app too.
These are places where accessing the Internet is expensive, even dangerous, and where having a secret network away from the prying eyes of state authorities is an attractive prospect.
But Open Garden seems to be getting more traction than other, similar efforts. Its chat service can be used both with an internet connection, and without. Users just need to have their WiFi and Bluetooth on, even if their phone is in airplane mode. If there’s no WiFi signal, it’ll work if there’s another user within 70 meters (230 feet). Once a FireChat user goes off the grid like this, San Francisco-based Open Garden can’t track them anymore. That’s why they have no idea how many people are actually using its off-the-grid feature. But downloads and user feedback suggest people are using it to create their own separate networks.
“The Internet of tomorrow is disparate networks,” said FireChat founder Micha Benoliel from the company’s headquarters on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. “People can grow their own Internet.” FireChat and parent company Open Garden have about 10 employees based in an open plan office on the corner of a dusty road that passes abandoned army compounds and other large buildings in the island. Around the corner is a striking view of the San Francisco metropolis, the kind of urban area where mesh networking could really take off.
That speaks to the bigger potential for Open Garden’s technology — not secret communication, but getting more people online.
Open Garden has already worked with entrepreneurs in India who used 10,000 donated Android tablets to get web access, once just a few put Open Garden on their smartphones to turn them into makeshift routers. The entrepreneurs had almost no connectivity infrastructure around them, Open Garden says, but they could still access the web.
To get a whole city like San Francisco online, Benoliel says he’d need at least 7% of the city’s population to use Open Garden. That’s around 6,800 devices per square kilometer. If he can reach that tipping point, Benoliel says he’ll get around 93% of those users connected to each other, and the web, for free.
The idea is moving from being far-fetched to possible because urban areas are now teeming with smartphones. There are more than 800 million Android phones and 300 million iPhones in active use in the world today. With those numbers growing, the prospects of creating “meshes” in densely populated cities gets bigger every year.
“Google has millions of Android phones they never see because they never connect to the Internet,” says Benoliel, who has been working on the technology for more than three years.
He points out that 99% of Android tablets in India and China are Wifi-only, and rely on hotspots to get online. Open Garden thinks it could get those people online for an extra 44 minutes longer per day, on average, if they used its app. While that would eat further into some users data plans, the constant moving of devices would mean that users “get as much as they give,” the company says./>/>
A note on the technology behind this: For iPhones, Open Garden harnesses Apple’s Multi-peer Connectivity Framework, a little known feature that Apple introduced with iOS 7 for the iPhone last September.
Back then it was unclear why Apple installed the framework in the first place — that is, until last Monday.
At its WWDC keynote, Apple revealed it had also put the protocol in its new operating system for Mac, called Yosemite, part of its move to get its devices talking to one another more seamlessly. Apple calls this Continuity, and it’s bound become a much bigger part of whatever Apple rolls out later this year with a wearable or smart home device.
Open Garden has already already been harnessing Apple’s technology to let iPhones to talk to each other, and without any help from carriers. (Apple, whose tight relationships with carriers is key to its $88 billion-a-year iPhone business, probably wouldn’t want to go down that route itself.)
FireChat is all about demonstrating the potential of Open Garden’s mesh networks. “It’s a bit like when Microsoft came out with Windows and wanted to show people the benefit of the graphical user interface,” says Open Garden co-founder Christophe Daligault. “It came out with Word and Excel and people said, ‘Oh, this is the kind of applications we can build.’”
Till then, Open Garden needs to make money. It has considered licensing its patented technology to the likes of Google and Facebook, to help get them into the developing world and the next frontier for selling online ads.
But the startup is far more interested in releasing a software development kit (SDK) for other Internet partners who could show ads through Open Garden’s mesh networks, in exchange for a fee.
“This can be a billion dollar company if we can get to the tipping point,” says Open Garden co-founder Christophe Daligault, referring to the 7% uptake in urban areas.
Open Garden may already see itself getting close. The company raised more than $10 million in venture capital funding at a $40 million valuation in April, according to filings provided by VC Experts. Since then it’s been seeking even more, according to another source with knowledge of the matter, and at an eye-popping $1 billion valuation.
Daligualt and Benoliel wouldn’t comment on the details of their fundraising.
“Our core business is connectivity,” Benoliel repeats. “The traditional players are the carriers, who deploy cable and fiber infrastructure. Then you have a new breed of players in connectivity, like Facebook and Google, playing at with fiber but now doing experimental work with satellite and drone.
“We believe we fit there with a revolutionary approach. With a simple app.”
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