A pair of hackers from Israel have won an international “hacking for good” competition with a new app that allows cellphone owners to use their devices without any sort of connection – a development that could send shockwaves through the wireless industry.
The AirHop app enables a mobile device without a connection to piggyback on another user’s device that does have service to make phone calls and send text messages or email.
“It’s absolutely disruptive,” said John Lunn, senior director of developer relations at PayPal, which sponsored the competition. “What [the team from] Tel Aviv built from a technology standpoint was incredible. I’ve never seen it before.”
AirHop uses so-called multi-peer, mesh networking technologies, including a blend of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct to establish connections between devices running the app. A device with no cellular service can thus use another device’s connection to forward data along until an actual network connection is found.
The range between devices is 50 metres, but they can be chained together so communications can be bounced along indefinitely.
The app only handles calls and messages currently, but it can be expanded to handle video and other applications, according to co-creator Shai Mishali.
“Everything can be done with enough time and programming,” he said. “You can transfer any kind of data.”
The potential is enormous, Lunn said, referring to the app as the “Airbnb of telecommunications.” Just as Airbnb is disrupting the hotel industry by crowd-sourcing accommodations, AirHop could eliminate roaming charges as users in one country extend their connections to travellers who are visiting from others.
The idea arose from that very situation after Pavel Kaminski, Mishali’s partner, found himself in an airport without a phone signal. “It just felt awkward to go and ask people if we could make a phone call,” he said.
The duo fleshed out the idea and decided to bring it to Battlehack in San Jose, Calif., the world finals of a hackathon circuit PayPal has been running around the world this year. The Israeli duo beat out teams from 13 other cities to win a $100,000 prize. Entrants had 24 hours to put together working prototypes, after which they pitched them to a panel of judges.
Each team had a few caveats to follow. They had to incorporate PayPal or one of the company’s various payments systems and they had to design an app that served a social good.
To fulfill that first requirement, Mishali and Kaminski designed AirHop to require users to exchange payments – small fees for placing a phone call over another user’s connection, for example. The PayPal connection could be dropped in the future, especially in situations where a government is trying to cut its populace off from connectivity.
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“They are unable to do that because people will hop and bounce through each other’s devices until they get to the internet,” Mishali said. “It’s decentralized and it’s not owned by any server. It’s impossible to take down.”
The app also has the potential to shake up how wireless service is sold, with cellphone subscribers potentially adopting a peer-to-peer system in which they could share usage. That could mean fewer actual subscribers and less revenue for wireless providers.
“Cellular companies get disrupted all the time,” Kaminski said. “WhatsApp came along and killed SMS messaging.”
Mishali, however, said the intent isn’t to disrupt the wireless business, but rather to help users make connections when they need them. Wireless networks are at the end of the AirHop chain, after all. “The cellphone companies are part of what we do.”
The duo plan to use their winnings to further develop the app, with no firm time frame yet on a release.