How do you communicate when the government censors the internet? With a peer-to-peer mesh broadcasting network that doesn’t use the internet.
That’s exactly what Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters are doing now, thanks to San Fransisco startup Bridgefy’s Bluetooth-based messaging app. The protesters can communicate with each other — and the public — using no persistent managed network.
And it’s led to swift growth for Bridgefy: downloads are up almost 4,000% over the past 60 days, according to Apptopia estimates (Apptopia is an app metrics company).
The app can connect people via standard Bluetooth across an entire city, thanks to a mesh network. Chatting is speediest with people who are close, of course, within a hundred meters (330 feet), but you can also chat with people who are farther away. Your messages will simply “hop” via other Bridgefy users’ phones until they find your intended target.
While you can chat privately with contacts, you can also broadcast to anyone within range, even if they are not a contact.
That’s clearly an ideal scenario for protesters who are trying to reach people but cannot use traditional SMS texting, email, or the undisputed uber-app of China: WeChat. All of them are monitored by the state.
I asked Bridgefy’s co-founder and CEO, Jorge Rios, for more information.
Koetsier: Tell me about the app … what it’s for, why you built it, and why most people use it.
Rios: Bridgefy is a messaging app that works with or without Internet. It’s based on Bluetooth instead, and we built it because we konw that the lack of communication can be vital in many places and situations. Most people download it before going to a large music of sporting event, but we’re currently having huge spikes in downloads from Hong Kong due to the protests.
Koetsier: I hear it’s being used in Hong Kong by the protesters. Tell me why what purposes they’re using it for and how big a spike you’ve seen in downloads/registrations/usage.
Rios: People are downloading it for two reasons:
1) Because Internet access is starting to be limited by the authorities.
2) Because it’s a safe way for people to communicate with there being very little risk of messages being read by unwanted eyes.
We’ve seen more than 60,000 app installations in just the past seven days, most of them from Hong Kong. People are using it to organize themselves and to stay safe, without having to depend on an Internet connection.
Koetsier: Anything else?
Rios: Whenever there’s a hurricane or earthquake in the world, we see spikes in app downloads. It’s important for us to say that our core technology is also available to developers, so that they may integrate it into their own apps and make them work offline. We license it based on the amount of offline users, and are currently working so that some day we might be able to use apps like WeChat, Tinder, Uber, and Whatsapp without Internet.
Koetsier: Thank you for your time!