Imagine a world without mobile network operators - pretty hard to do right now as connectivity races forward, smartphone sales boom and the next great frontier is 5G.
But what about a future where there are no networks? It seems far fetched, but it’s a reality that could come about sooner than many people, even industry veterans, realise.
A key force is FireChat, a messaging app that works like a ‘daisy chain’ of connected devices. It doesn’t need a network signal or internet connection, relying instead on peer-to-peer mesh networking to connect smartphones directly to one another. Bitcoin for phones.
Each device acts as a ‘node’ in the network and relays the messages to the next device and so on. It uses Bluetooth, WiFi and Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework to work. FireChat is not the only horse in the race - Facebook’s Internet.org project uses mesh networking to bring connectivity to remote areas. Starry is another similar scheme.
Micha Benoliel from Open Garden, the startup behind FireChat, says it could soon become “a carrier, a mobile operator but with no infrastructure”. The company plans to enable voice calls and photos, too.
Of course, there is no real danger of carriers being displaced immediately. Messages cannot be guaranteed 100% to be delivered as there needs to be the mesh network - enough devices close enough together - for the service to work. If five per cent of people in a city have FireChat turned on, it can only ‘guarantee’ delivery of the message within 20 minutes. Hardly instantaneous but this will undoubtedly improve as it grows: the more devices, the better it works.
Therefore the technology could pose fundamental problems for carriers when it’s coupled with the Internet of Things. The vast machine-to-machine market - potentially 50 billion devices within the next few years - could create the canvas on which this peer-to-peer connectivity framework really has legs.
It’s the blockchain of messaging and phone connectivity, and something that could revolutionise how mobile operators function.