New App That Lets You Text People Without Cell Signal or Wi-Fi is Making a Killing in Hong Kong

With all of the violence of the Occupy Central protests, communication for protesters, bystanders, and even the authorities, can be key. However, when you cram so many people in one spot (EDC and Burning Man-goers would know), cell and Wi-Fi signals can be heavily impaired, making it impossible to communicate. That’s where Firechat comes to the rescue.

Firechat allows users to chat with other people without the need for an internet or cell signal. All messages are public, as the app is not meant for private communication; however, users are not required to post using their real names. You can set up chat rooms and invite people within a 250-feet radius to join, with as many as 10,000 users able to be in a single chat room at once. Users are able to connect directly with each other by simply using their phones’ Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Firechat was created by Micha Benoliel, Stanislav Shalunov and Greg Hazel, all whom are experienced entrepreneurs. Benoliel was kind enough to catch up with us via Skype to speak more on his app.

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“Firechat was created in the beginning as a demo app to demonstrate the technology for what we call peer-to-peer mesh networking,” Firechat CEO Micha Benoliel told NextShark. “It means that when you have smart phones, tablets or laptops within proximity it creates a network by linking these devices with direct connections without going through a Wi-Fi hotspot or a cell tower.”

While Benoliel initially built the app to enable communication in situations where you normally can’t communicate, like concerts, large conferences and planes, the technology has been incredibly useful during the protests in Hong Kong. Other features of the app allow users to moderate posts and report those misusing the app.

Benoliel and his team spent three years working on the app and he notes that some elements of the technology are proprietary.

Coincidentally, Benoliel was in transit in Hong Kong recently when he thought about how his app didn’t have enough users in the area. Suddenly, on September 28, the app exploded with 100,000 new users signed up in one day. The growth to date has been completely organic without any major advertisement. According to Benoliel, in Hong Kong alone Firechat currently has over 500,000 accounts, 10.2 million conversations in the last two weeks, and peaked with 40,000 people using the app simultaneously. Benoliel attributes the sudden growth of his app to luck, especially since he had a lot of trouble raising funds in the beginning for his project.

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While Firechat is capable of doing good, one can’t ignore the fact that on the flip side it can also be used for bad — terrorist organizations could potentially use the app to plan their meetings and attacks, for instance. While Benoliel is well aware of this, he is optimistic about its use.

“It’s a communication tool! If you eat with a fork and knife, you can use it to eat or you can choose to harm people with it. What we are seeing is that it’s doing good more than it’s doing bad. So what’s important is the good that’s it’s creating.”

In regards to his thoughts on the protests in general, Micha Benoliel only had this to say:

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for China to test democracy.”

Benoliel concluded our conversation by announcing a new feature he’s rolling out.

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“We’re going to be introducing verified accounts. For anyone who has a good audience and wants to get a verified account, email [email protected]

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