Lonely Planet Writer

New app allows users to send messages without internet connection

The Burning Man Festival – described as the temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance – is this week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. There’s no Wi-Fi at the festival – probably due more to the concept of community than self-reliance – and the vast numbers attending the festival mean that cell phone coverage is overwhelmed.

Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Image by Erzen Design / CC BY 2.0

FireChat, however, can help travelers connect at festivals like Burning Man, as well as in far-flung destinations, airplanes, and other venues where your mobile phone is usually as helpful a communication tool as a brick.

The free Android and iPhone app lets users communicate via text, photos, or videos when their phones aren’t connected to their cell provider’s data network or a WiFi network. Using peer-to-peer match, FireChat users connect directly with each other’s mobile phones via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, creating their own network. According to FireChat’s developer, Open Garden, two mobile phones can communicate if they are within 200 feet of each other. The more people who are using FireChat, however, the greater the range.

Burning Man Festival, 2014.
Burning Man Festival, 2014. Image by chrisweger / CC BY-SA 2.0

For example, if you and a friend are on a secluded mountain where there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi, you’ll be able to communicate if you’re within 200 feet of each other. If you’re at Burning Man though, you’ll be able to reach your friend even if she’s at the other end of the festival, as long as there are enough FireChat users to create a network strong enough to relay your message.

In addition to public chat rooms FireChat added private messaging in July. Those messages are encrypted, according to TechCrunch—even if they are stored on another device while waiting to be relayed to your intended recipient. And hashtags on FireChat function like they do on Twitter.

Revelers having fun at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
Revelers having fun at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Image by Clarke Bishop / CC BY 2.0

To use FireChat, install the app when you do have a traditional data connection, turn on Wi-Fi and BlueTooth and open the app (if you’re on an airplane though, probably best to follow the airlines’ rules and put your phone in airplane mode as well). You can create an account with your real name or be anonymous (which also explains why this app is popular with protestors where the government has blocked out cell coverage in an attempt to thwart communications).