Hongkongers flock to ‘off-grid’ chat app FireChat amid fears of internet shutdown
A mobile messaging application enabling users to communicate without internet access has seen large numbers of new sign-ups from Hong Kong as pro-democracy demonstrators in the territory scrambled for alternative means of communication amid the weekend’s protests.
Some 100,000 people have downloaded the application FireChat for smartphones over the last 24 hours in Hong Kong, according to Open Garden, the company that developed the communications tool which operates without an Internet connection or mobile phone coverage.
“We started seeing a small increase on Saturday, and then the numbers just boomed on Sunday,” said Micha A. Benoliel, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “It’s huge. We didn’t have that many users before.”
Up to 33,000 people used the application at the same time in Hong Kong, Benoliel said, referring to the 24 hours period between Sunday morning and Monday morning Hong Kong time.
Hong Kong protest organisers called on participants to download the application on Sunday, when rumours circulated that the city’s government would shut down cellphone networks in Admiralty.
While the cellular networks were not deactivated in Hong Kong on Sunday, some protesters reported bad cellphone reception.
FireChat, launched only in March this year, allows smartphone users to communicate via Bluetooth or WiFi, an alternative to cellphone networks. Its chat-rooms, dubbed “firechats”, allow users to communicate without exchanging data with traditional cellular networks. These live and anonymous discussion groups can gather as many as 10,000 people simultaneously, according to Open Garden.
Benoliel declined to reveal the application’s total number of users.
Groups in support of Hong Kong’s protests in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK have also turned to FireChat to communicate on the protests, Benoliel said.