FireChat, a new iOS app released this week, lets you chat with people nearby without the need for internet. For connecting two devices, the app uses a new iOS 7 technology called Multipeer Connectivity Framework instead.
The Multipeer Connectivity Framework lets apps communicate with other devices using infrastructure such as Wi-Fi networks, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth personal area networks. While these technologies are short ranged, their range can be extended if there are a chain of users, with each user being close enough to just one other user, so there’s at least one connection for every user.
This type of connectivity is called mesh networking, and its ability to operate without an internet connection makes it quite useful in various situations, as Cult of Mac notes:
[Mesh networking] can extend an Internet connect to a place where none exists — for example, to a hotel basement, cave or — if you live where I do (in Sonoma County North of San Francisco) to rural areas where cell tower connections are non-existent.
Here’s an example. There’s an ultramarathon that takes place in California each year on a trail called Skyline-to-the-Sea. It’s a roughly 30 mile trail through giant redwood forests where there is no cell connectivity. Using FireChat or some other app that uses iOS 7’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework, race volunteers, staff and participants could extend Internet connectivity and communication in an ad hoc mesh network that extends the length of the course.
You can imagine the uses in a disaster area where cell towers have been knocked out, or other situations where people need to communicate but where no WiFi or mobile broadband is available.
Apart from solving infrastructure related problems, mesh networking’s peer-to-peer connectivity can also be very useful in situations where the government is trying to curb communication by blocking certain messaging services. Since mesh networking doesn’t involve any “central” node, no government has the power to control or block communication over such kinds of channels.
AirDrop, the new way to send files in iOS 7 also uses the Multipeer framework to connect and communicate between devices.
The best part of course is that Multipeer Connectivity is available on most devices running on iOS 7, so apps can easily piggyback on this technology to create peer-to-peer networks for various purposes. If its adoption takes off, mesh networking has the potential to revolutionise communication, and Apple is well positioned to be at the center of this revolution.