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Smartphone app can bring connection to disaster areas without networks

SAN FRANCISCO, March 24 — San Francisco-based Open Garden is working to tweak a gadget that helps the firm's smartphone application, or app, reach further into areas where WiFi and cellular signals are not available.

The firm introduced a year ago a software that could send messages and voice calls bypassing WiFi and cellular networks, providing an off-the-grid connectivity framework, known as "mesh networking," that works with phones with the iOS8 operating system.

Open Garden's app, FireChat, has since garnered over 5 million users. Now, Micha Benoliel, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO), is moving forward to make the app functional without the need of support from other phones with the same app, as the app comes with its own network.

FireChat was initially created to help festival-goers and protesters connect in areas where the networks are unavailable or "hostile," leaving them isolated from civilization or friends at the same event.

However, the range of the phones is not as far as regular WiFi networks, so if the crowds are not big enough, users are eventually left disconnected.

As a solution, Open Garden has developed a device known as Greenstone, to use the Bluetooth interface and help bring more density to the app's network. It uses each phone as a sort of stepping stone that leaps from one phone to another, with the device helping fill out the gaps.

"Think of hurricane Katrina, it brought down all communications and left thousands stranded," Benoliel told Xinhua on Tuesday.

"With FireChat and Greenstone, they could have been able to reach emergency services without the need of working networks."

The main idea behind Greenstone, Benoliel said, is to bring connectivity to those who can't receive it either because they live in remote locations, cannot afford to pay for the data or have lost their communication networks. Another perk is that Greenstone can store up to 1,000 messages.

He envisioned installing the device in different parts of cities or areas, so users will have connections for free.

"Over 80 percent of smartphones sold in developing or third world countries do not use internet data provided by the carrier, because they can't pay for it, so this is our main market, the people we are hoping to reach," he said.

FireChat and other "mesh networking" apps are frequently used by hackers, since they can go undetected by the regular networks and do not leave traces. But Benoliel dismissed possible threats coming from a stealth network.

"There are other encoded networks out there as well and nothing is happening, I honestly see more positive outcomes stemming from this kind of network than negative sides," he said. (PNA/Xinhua)


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