WiFi, LTE, FireChat, Let The Meshing Begin…

For reasons far beyond my control, I’ve been caused to look again at cellular internet issues. Right now, I’m running on a small T-Mobile Hotspot using 4g-LTE tech. That’s about the speed of nice fat Ethernet ( 100 Mbits/s with options both sides depending on how the carrier implements, up to just under 300 Mbits/s possible ). Latency (how long to get the packet) is also nice and small. So lots of big data showing up without much delay.

Love it. The LTE tech lets the radio do multichannel communications, so a lot of bytes in a fast burst over a wide spectrum.

Only problem is the cost… I’m being clocked for something like $10 / GByte of data. Not going to to be downloading a lot of Linux releases at that rate… and I’m looking at the need to swap my “filtering DNS” server over to this network (somehow…) so that I’m not spending a bucket of Bytes to download Fat Adverts with animation, movies, etc. etc. etc… For now, I just don’t visit sites with a load of animated advertising and other similar bandwidth sucking crap.

Along the way, I ran into something I’d seen before, but had less interest in at the time. Mesh Networks are a keen thing, where a bunch of devices set up a network like a mesh of connections between them, and messages travel over this fabric from node to node to their destination. I had mentioned them in the article about setting up an ersatz emergency network post disaster, or if TPTB decided to shut down “The Internet”. https://chiefio.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/rise-of-the-mesh-ings/

Well, I’m not the only one who saw that as an opportunity. The Open Source Community hates things like blockading communications and attempts at Central Authority Control. It flows around such things. And flow it has. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FireChat

FireChat is a proprietary mobile app, developed by Open Garden, which uses wireless mesh networking to enable smartphones to connect via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework without an internet connection by connecting peer-to-peer.

Though it was not designed with the purpose in mind, FireChat has been used as a communication tool in some civil protests.


The app was first introduced in March 2014 for iPhones, followed on April 3 by a version for Android devices.

In July 2015, FireChat introduced private messaging. Until then, it had only been possible to post messages to public chatrooms.


FireChat first became popular in 2014 in Iraq following government restrictions on internet use, and thereafter during the Hong Kong protests. In 2015, FireChat was also promoted by protesters during the 2015 Ecuadorian protests. On September 11, 2015, during the pro-independence demonstration called Free Way to the Catalan Republic, FireChat was used 131,000 times.

In January 2016, students protested at the University of Hyderabad, India, following the suicide of a PhD student named Rohith Vemula. Some students were reported to have used Firechat after the university shut down its Wi-Fi.


In June 2014, Firechat’s developers told Wired that “[p]eople need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who’s hostile … It was not meant for secure or private communications.”

As of July 2015, FireChat claims to use end-to-end encryption to protect its one-to-one private messages.

So that’s the Wiki Thumbnail on it. The moved from a giant bulletin board, to a place where you can send an encrypted note to a friend and if the “teacher” gets it, can’t read it to the whole class…

A bit more “Onion” like routing on it and even the contact trace from who to whom will be private. (One of the stickier bits of private communications over open networks, how to know the route to your destination without everyone else knowing who is talking to whom…)

But folks are working on that kind of thing… just need a bit more and some integration…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TorChat though this one is more up to date and active: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricochet_(software)

Ricochet is a modern alternative to TorChat, which hasn’t been updated in several years, and to Tor Messenger, which is still in beta. On September 17, 2014, it was announced that the Invisible.im group would be working with Brooks on further development of Ricochet in a Wired article by Kim Zetter. Zetter also wrote that Ricochet’s future plans included a protocol redesign and file-transfer capabilities. The protocol redesign was implemented in April 2015.

But for now, a simple encrypted message through FireChat is “good enough” for most needs, either in an emergency or in a “protest”. Contact Trace hiding can come later, and isn’t something high on my list of personal concerns.

Yes, TPTB could still use jammers to jam the radio spectrum used by Bluetooth and WiFi. That would also knock their own use off the air and require a fairly large number of jammers to shut down anything other than a small area of active protest.

The key ‘takeaway’ here is just that Mesh Networking is now in the land of “there’s an App For That”, and doesn’t require the average person to do any kind of technical work to make it go. Not even knowing how to set up a modem… As there are now nearly ubiquitous cell phones present, the potential size of the mesh in most urban or semi-urban areas can easily run into the millions of nodes, and with fairly high aggregate bandwidth available.

Most of the heavy lifting is now done, all that’s needed is some nice userland layers on top, and some Onion like privacy layers optionally in the middle. Generally, it looks like the Open Source community is drifting that way, so in a year or two we ought to have that solution available, IMHO.


What is Firechat?

Firechat is an open-source, real-time chat widget built on Firebase. It offers fully secure multi-user, multi-room chat with flexible authentication, moderator features, user presence and search, private messaging, chat invitations, and more.

What can I do with Firechat?

With Firechat, you get full-featured chat in your application with a few simple script includes. Additionally, Firechat is easy to modify and extend. Based upon it’s simple underlying data model and Firebase-powered data synchronization, it’s easy to add new features, modify the UI, and customize to fit your specific needs.

If Firechat doesn’t currently meet your needs, feel free to fork the repo and tweak the code!

Which technologies does Firechat use?

The core data layer under Firechat uses Firebase for real-time data synchronization and persistence.

The default interface uses jQuery, Underscore.js, and Bootstrap. Icons by Glyphicons. Build and compilation managed with Grunt and code hosted by GitHub.

Who’s behind Firechat?

Firechat was built by the folks at Firebase in San Francisco, California.

Community submissions are encouraged! Star Firechat on GitHub and send a pull request when you’re ready to contribute!

Rather interesting to note that the page also states CBS TV Network is using FireChat. Nice to see some Majors getting with the program of distributed communications and privacy ;-)

Runs on both iPhone and Android. Official Site here.

No central servers, so no communications repository to be kept forever to be used against you. Encryption, so even if the message is intercepted, the odds of a crack of the message are low.

All in all, very nice. Kind of like Family Radio Service for your cell phone ;-)

No big surprise, at the Geek Meets it’s a hit:


A year ago, so a bit out of date. Doesn’t mention the encryption that’s available now.

Big at SXSW: FireChat Bypass Cellular and WiFi Networks

Becky Worley
Special Contributor, Yahoo! Tech
March 14, 2015

SXSW Breakout App: FireChat

A relatively new app called FireChat is on fire here at South by Southwest. It’s a communication tool for posting messages. What’s unique about it: No cell service or even Wi-Fi networks are needed. Co-founder and CEO Micha Benoliel says, “It’s the first app that comes with its own network.” Wait, what does that even mean?

Traditionally, data and text messages travel over a mobile network by going from your phone to the nearest cell tower or Wi-Fi hotspot and are routed over a complex network, then eventually to other cell towers or networking hardware to the recipient. FireChat doesn’t need towers. It doesn’t even need a Wi-Fi router like Whatsapp does; it relays data from phone to phone to phone via the wireless technologies that are built into the phone. As long as devices are running FireChat and are within about 100 feet of each other, FireChat can build its own network.

Previously: FireChat Network-Free Chat Could Be Big. And Now It’s on Android

Your phone has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios built into it; Bluetooth connects to your earpiece or car; and Wi-Fi usually connects to a router. But those same wireless signals can connect to other phones, both Android and iPhone. Benoliel says, ”It forms a peer-to-peer mesh network. The phones daisy-chain to each other.” FireChat works in any situation, whether you are connected to the Internet or not, even in airplane mode, as long as Bluetooth is on.

The app was used at the last Burning Man, where spotty cell coverage is the rule: Sharing info on FireChat helped people figure out what was happening where. FireChat really gained momentum in Hong Kong last fall. Afraid authorities would turn off cell and Wi-Fi access, 500,000 protesters downloaded FireChat in a seven-day period.
Benoliel traveled to Hong Kong to see what was happening: “The most amazing thing was when you were in the crowd, but people on FireChat were having a conversation and helping each other.”

That ad hoc use in Hong Kong leads to thoughts of similar mesh networks erupting in emergencies. Imagine cell towers go down in an earthquake, but smartphone to smartphone networks form using Firechat. How different would the communication nightmares of Katrina have been if a phone-to-phone network filled the void?
And Benoliel imagines an even greater use in emerging markets where cellphone infrastructure doesn’t yet exist: “In the coming three years, you’re going to have 5 billion small smartphones on the planet. Most of these will be shipped in emerging markets, where very often people cannot pay for a data plan, or where connectivity is lacking.”

So there you have it. The Mesh in at least one form has formed. I expect there are others, and I’d do a more complete search, but right now I’m paying “by the byte” for connectivity, so casually whacking into a load of pages with ads and graphics and… just “to see”, isn’t a priority. Maybe once I’m at Starbucks and getting a Mocha with my Bytes ;-)

FWIW, it is also quite reasonable to put something like this App onto a regular desk computer or laptop. The same basic code could would work fine with only the wrappers changed. Essentially, every single computer with a WiFi dongle could become a node in such a Mesh Network, and wherever any one of them had a working Internet Connection, data could flow to the rest of the world. I expect that to take a bit longer to form. The odds of any of the “ordinary folks” around me for a 100 feet just accidentally setting up a Mesh Node at the same time I do would be “slim to none”. However, once you have a bunch of Cell Phones doing FireChat, adding a few base stations to the Mesh becomes a much more reasonable thing to do. And if some of them ran TOR…

But that’s for the future. I think…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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4 Responses to WiFi, LTE, FireChat, Let The Meshing Begin…

  1. Larry Ledwick says:

    Jamming has limitations too.

    Point to point communication can still succeed in a general jamming environment if you can achieve high enough effective radiated power over the path.


    A few individuals with high gain antennas and knowledge of which bearing to point them could “break out” communications from a jammed environment.

    Going to spread spectrum also makes jamming very difficult. It is all a technology race between measure and counter measure.

    This solution has been used constructively a few times. In one case I recall, a tumbling satellite was brought under control with the help of a radio amateur who did moon bounce communications. This requires very high gain antenna arrays and he was able to bang on the out of control satellite with enough ERP so that it could receive control signals even though its antenna was not pointed properly for normal communications.

  2. D. J. Hawkins says:

    Though not nearly as sexy, the fire alarm industry has had a mesh network available for several years from provider AES. In a world of disappearing POTS lines and pathetic radio-based networks (yes, I’m talking to you, AlarmNet) it’s an excellent solution. Range is usually a couple of miles and on a campus where you might have 60 buildings or so, darn near bullet-proof. Network connectivity to the central station is something of a chicken-and-egg question but they are definitely continuing to roll on.

  3. Bill S says:

    Sorry. As per usual I am at least one post behind.
    The Pi3 looks robust enough to waste a lot of my time. Still stuck at USB 2, but I am in need of a hobby for when star gazing is not available. I am two or more tiers below your level but fear not little endians. Is the Pi3 a good place to enter the game? e.g. I like the idea of evading Big brother by other means than being a too small fish.

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    @Bill S.:
    The Pi3 is 1.2 GHz and 64 bit, so notably faster than the Pi2 at 1 GHz and 32 bit. The Pi2 is almost fast enough to be comfortable, so I’d guess the Pi3 is fast enough to be a nice daily driver.

    Not having played with one, I can’t speak to any bugs or quirks (like the Pi2 spazing when loaded to 100% for a long time) but that ought to be chip specific.

    I plan to buy one, with heat sink kit, as soon as I have caught up a couple of other projects. At way less than one tank of gas, or dinner out, it is high value for cost. iFF you find that you don’t like it as your daily driver, it will still be good for a lot of infrastructure projects, like DNS server, file server, firewall, etc. My model B+ runs 24×7 as server now. Rock solid reliable in that use and daily saves me from gobs of ads and junk sites via a DNS blacklist.

    My only disappointment so far is that a stack of Model2’s can’t be used as a Beowulf farm due to the crash at 100% load issue. As that is chip specific, it ought not repeat in the M3, but few folks will hit that anyway. So I’m going to try the M3 “at the wall” for a few hours, and if it is OK, use it to make my cluster. Othrrwise use a more expensive board.

    My 2 x Model2 will be fine for internal servers. (PXE boot server for other boxes, file server for RAID stack, etc.) I’m not settled yet on using the B+ or the M2 as VPN server, but one of them…

    Just a fun little buch of projects in any case. That the system personality can be changed with a chip swap means I have a dozen different “computers” now via chips. (I booted Puppy Linux on it last week to copy some data quickly from USB to disk, then Ubuntu for something else, both from Berryboot on the same chip… so even a chip swap is optional…)

    It is a great thing for playing, and reasonable for many kinds of work. Just realize it is going to take some thinking to make it go. Yes, you can just cook book it, but you WILL be installing LINUX and doing tech stuff to make it go. Not “Windows in a box”.and certainly not a Macintosh. Though frankly I find it more fun than either of them :-)

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