In the digital era, few things could be more disconcerting and disruptive of our normal everyday life than losing internet connection. San Francisco-based startup Bridgefy aims to remedy this situation by making apps that send messages from one device to another without using the internet or SMS.
The app has been gaining popularity among young Hongkongers since the anti-extradition bill movement began in June as protesters become more aware of the risk of a government-mandated internet or social media shutdown, something that has happened before in countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Sudan.
Jorge Rios, Bridgefy’s co-founder and chief executive, talked about his company’s business model and technology solutions during a recent email interview with EJ Insight. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q: What’s behind the founding of Bridgefy? What inspired you to launch this product and venture into the business?
A: The idea of building Bridgefy started in 2014, at an international technology competition (hackathon) called StartupBus. We realized that the problem of people not having access to a way of communicating is not only an inconvenience, but can also stop economic and social growth, and can even be the difference between life and death. If we came up with a way for people to communicate with others by only using their smartphone, we could penetrate markets that are ignored by the telecommunications companies. This way, we could help people stay connected with each other when they need it most.
Popularity in Hong Kong
Q: At a time when most mobile apps and users are connected by the internet, what is the ambition of Bridgefy?
A: We’re providing an alternative way of communicating that doesn’t make people depend on paying for a plan or being connected to a Wi-Fi network. We’re convinced that the billions of people that have a smartphone shouldn’t always need the internet to share information.
Q: Bridgefy has been gaining popularity in Hong Kong with its use during the city’s massive rallies and protests. What are your thoughts about this?
A: We’re privileged and honored to be helping the people of Hong Kong in moments when communication is most needed. We have created a tool people may find useful in different ways. There are daily life use cases that are more consistent; there are occasional surges in use in events like concerts, ball games, post-disaster, and mass movements. Our chat app is a proof of concept, and a free and accessible way to experience our technology.
We’d just like to clarify that Bridgefy Inc. takes no political stance whatsoever in any conflict or situation, wishing only for a peaceful resolution of all matters. Bridgefy Inc. claims no responsibility for the usage of its products, and has no control over content that is shared through them. Bridgefy Inc. doesn’t have access to this content. For more information and a complete understanding of how the Bridgefy products may be used, please read our Terms and Conditions document, found on our website, www.bridgefy.me.
Q: How does Bridgefy work?
A: Bridgefy uses the Bluetooth to connect smartphones directly, instead of making them send information over the internet. Two devices can connect over a distance of 100 meters, and if you want to reach someone that is more than 100 meters away, your message can “hop” on devices found in the middle (that are also using Bridgefy) until it reaches the person you actually want to talk to.
Messages that are sent from one person to another are encrypted end-to-end, but Broadcast chat messages (one to many) aren’t. It’s very, very unlikely, but third parties could intercept the message, but even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to read it.
Q: What is the business scale of Bridgefy at present? How many devices and developers are using Bridgefy’s app or SDK (software development kit)?
A: Bridgefy is currently being used in over 10 countries, with more than 60 developers using the Bridgefy SDK on their own apps, and around 400,000 downloads on the Bridgefy Messaging App.
Q: How does Bridgefy earn money?
A: The Bridgefy app is completely free, and we also license our technology to other companies so that they can make their own apps work without the internet. We have several customers already, like YouTubers doing live events, tourism apps, natural disaster alert apps, and several more types. App developers and companies can visit www.bridgefy.me and start integrating the Bridgefy software into their own apps to make them work without the internet. There are products implementing our technology ranging from daily logistics and entertainment events to disaster relief apps.
Q: What do you want to achieve with Bridgefy’s technology?
A: We’re working to become the standard for offline communications. Large music and sports events, natural disasters, government control, and underprivileged communities are situations in which people need to stay communicated, but oftentimes can’t. We’re not trying to replace the internet, we simply want to be an alternative for when the internet isn’t available.
Compatibility with IoT devices
Q: Considering the emerging Internet-of-Things (IoT) trend, can Bridgefy’s technology be used on IoT devices to communicate, collect and exchange data with people and other IoT-enabled things?
A: Yes, Bridgefy isn’t limited to working on Bluetooth. The Bridgefy technology can run on several devices, including IoT ones like Raspberry Pi and Edison. We’re starting on smartphones, but will gradually grow to other physical platforms to cover as many varieties of hardware possible. Look at mobile apps as books were to Amazon: it’s a way of growing and getting people to know us, then we will move on to more devices, more operating systems, and more use cases.
Q: The congestion problem of current 4G networks due to occasional surges in use in mass events results in one of the major use cases of Bridgefy technology. Do you think the upcoming 5G network can solve the 4G congestion problem?
A: Not really. The congestion problem won’t be solved significantly with 5G. What 5G does is provide faster downloads/uploads from the cloud, but the infrastructure will take a very long time to be able to become more stable than it is now. 5G is expensive and will roll out very slowly, and only in some cities at first.
Q: The market has seen multiple “global internet” access initiatives planned by tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and SpaceX. What is your take on that?
A: Those are mostly Wi-Fi networks that will act like any other Wi-Fi network: they will stop working during natural disasters or when electricity is out, be able to support a limited amount of devices, and will be restricted to service just a small distance around them. In addition to all of this, they will take very long to cover the whole world (if it’s even possible), whereas technologies like Bridgefy can get on millions of devices in a very short time, with no investment in infrastructure needed.
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