Communicate during protests, with FireChat, when the mobile network is down

When you protest for a cause, alongside thousands of people, it is very likely that the mobile network will stop working on everyone’s smartphone. This happens because there are too many smartphones in a small space and the mobile network can’t handle so many connections from the same place. When this happens, you can no longer access the internet on your smartphone, call or text others, until you go to another spot with fewer people around you. For such situations, there’s a mobile app that can help. It is named FireChat, it is free and it works on the iPhone as well as on Android smartphones. It was used successfully during protests in Iraq (2014), Hong Kong (2014), Ecuador (2015) and Romania (2017). Here’s how to use it to communicate with others, when protesting, on your Android smartphone:

What do you need in order to communicate using FireChat?

You can use FireChat to communicate during protests, when the mobile network is down, because this app creates a P2P (Peer to peer) network between all the smartphones that use it in a given area. In order to use it and install it on your smartphone with Android, you need to allow the installation of apps from unknown sources. This is because FireChat installs the ANT Radio Service - a wireless communication service that is used to transfer data between all the smartphones that use FireChat. To activate this option, go to Settings -> Security and scroll down until you get to Device administration. Here, set the Unknown sources switch to Yes. When you do this, you are informed that it is not a good decision from a security perspective, which is true. However, after you install and configure FireChat you can set the same setting back to No.

An elegant alternative is to install the ANT Radio Service before installing FireChat, straight from the Google Play store, using this link: ANT Radio Service.

What do you have to do before going to the protest?

In order to successfully use FireChat to communicate during a protest, you have to do the following, before going to the protest itself:

  • Install FireChat and the ANT Radio Service
  • Create an account on FireChat and configure the app
  • Add to your contacts list, the people that you want to communicate with, during the protests. They also have to do the same on their smartphones, in order to communicate with you
  • Agree on the name of the public communication channel that you will use to communicate with other protesters. By default, FireChat offers a public channels called Everyone, where anybody using this app can post messages. Someone should create the channel and others should join it on FireChat
  • Turn on Bluetooth and WiFi on your smartphone, so that they can be used by FireChat to create the P2P network în the area where you will be

Each step is described in more detail in the following sections of this guide.

Step 1: Install FireChat and create an account

Open Google Play and search for FireChat. Press the button for downloading and installing the app. You can also use this link to go straight to the app page: FireChat. After the app is installed, open it. If you already have an account, tap Sign In and type your phone number, your e-mail or account name that you used in the past with FireChat. Then, use the instructions that are given to you, in order to sign in. If you need to create a new account, tap Sign up!.

You are asked to type a valid email address where you will receive a PIN code for verification. Do as requested and tap OK.

You are asked to confirm that the email address that you just entered is correct. As soon as you do this, you will receive an authentication code in your inbox, from FireChat. Verify your email and introduce the code you received in FireChat.

FireChat creates a username for your and it also auto completes your name. You can modify this data as you wish and then tap Sign up!.

Then, it displays several fields that you can use to further personalize your account. You add a profile pictures, change your name and add a small bio. When done with this step, press Save.

You are given the option to add your contacts to FireChat. If you wish, you can choose the people that you want to communicate with and press the Invite button near their name. The people you select will receive an invite to download and install FireChat.

You are informed that, if you want to connect to FireChat when your mobile network is down, you need to install the ANT Radio Service we mentioned earlier. This service helps you use the app when there’s no internet connection available. Tap Install to have it installed and working.

If you haven’t enabled the installation of apps from unknown sources in Android, or you did not install the ANT Radio Service from Google Play, then you are told that the install is blocked and you need to manually change the settings of your smartphone, to activate the installation of apps from unknown sources.

Once this is done, tap on Install.

After the ANT Radio Service is installed, press Done and the FireChat app starts. When you first use it, it informs you that the FireChat Connection Service automates the connections to the FireChat network, without the need for manual configuration or waiting. Tap OK and you can use the app.

 

On some devices with Android 7.0 or newer, you may need to allow this service to run in the background, from your smartphone’s settings.

Step 2: Get familiar with FireChat

The FireChat app is split into several screens. The first displays the messages that you have received recently, in one to one conversations.

The second screen allows you to create discussion groups, search for FireChat members and see your list of contacts.

The third screen is for public discussion groups from your area or the groups that you have joined or created. All the discussions from this screen are public and can be accessed by anyone using FireChat

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In the last application screen, you can view and change the FireChat settings.

Step 3: Create a discussion channel for your group

In FireChat, you can create a discussion channel for the group of people that you are protesting with. Press the + button in the list of available channels, name your channel and tap Create.

You can invite your friends to this channel, using social networks like Twitter or Facebook. You can also send them private messages with the name of your channel.

Now you can start talking with others in this channel.

Step 4: Have private discussions with others

FireChat promises that private, direct chat conversations between two people are encrypted, unlike the discussions in public channels. In the screen for private conversations, you can start talking with anyone from your contact list.

Tap on the name of the contact you already started talking with or tap the button for creating a new conversation, in the bottom-right corner. Then, pick the person you want to talk to, type your message and press Send.

Try FireChat at your next protest and let us know how it works

We used FireChat during several protests in our home country (Romania) and we found it very effective. Some days, it was the only way we could talk to our friends and family who wanted to get in touch with us while protesting. Also, the app was useful in coordinating with other protesters. Try it for yourself and let us know what you think about FireChat, in the comments below.