New Delhi: The spate of internet shutdowns in wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act protests and the lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir has led to a spurt in the downloads of messaging apps that work without the internet.
According to data with mobile app intelligence firm SensorTower, since 13 December, when internet shutdowns began, there has been a 7,500 per cent increase in download of FireChat and a 319 per cent rise in download of Bridgefy, both of which rely on Bluetooth to function.
The data also reveals that Delhi showed the most interest in these apps in the seven-day period beginning 12 December while those in Jammu and Kashmir took to these apps over the whole year.
Indians, though, will be disappointed to discover that these apps don’t work as expected. FireChat does not work at all due to a glitch and even if it does, it is limited to a short range of around 61 m. Bridgefy too works only in a similarly short distance of 100 m.
Technology policy consultant and former Nasscom vice-president Prasanto K. Roy, however, says apps such as FireChat are “invaluable” during internet shutdowns when other apps won’t work and are especially effective during disasters when communication lines are down and people, for example, those trapped in buildings, need to reach out to rescue teams.
According to SensorTower, FireChat was downloaded only 400 times in India between 6 December and 12 December.
After December 13, when state-imposed internet shutdowns increased to contain protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, FireChat downloads skyrocketed.
Between 13 December and 19 December, FireChat was downloaded 30,000 times in India — a 7,500 per cent increase in downloads for the app compared to the previous seven-day period.
This is also a marked increase in downloads for an app that has only ever been downloaded around 5,21,000 times in India. For added context, FireChat was only downloaded 80 times in India between 5 November and 4 December.
On 19 December alone, the day Delhi experienced a partial internet shutdown, FireChat was downloaded 8,800 times in India.
As for Bridgefy, between 6 December and 12 December, the app was downloaded only 7,200 times in India.
For the seven-day period from 13 December, Bridgefy downloads increased by over 319 per cent to 23,000.
On 19 December, the day internet shutdown hit Delhi, Bridgefy registered 7,500 downloads in India.
Who showed the most interest in the app
According to Google Trends, Delhi showed the most interest in discovering FireChat over the seven-day period. It was followed by Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur and Karnataka in that order.
Over a 12-month period, however, the Jammu and Kashmir region showed the most interest in Firechat according to Google Trends while Delhi falls to the fifth place in this list.
India has known about FireChat longer than commonly known. The app, founded in 2012 and based in San Francisco, calls India its second-biggest user base after the US according to this Quartz report.
For example, Qazi Zaid, who owns the news site Free Press Kashmir, said he first used FireChat way back in 2014 during the Kashmir floods. The app had helped organise rescue and relief operations when internet and phone lines were down.
“Of course the app is not the equivalent of using a regular app that relies on the internet,” he said. “But it was useful”.
Fayaz Farzan, a Kashmiri now studying in Rajasthan, said he found out about FireChat while looking for ways to keep in touch with his family in the run-up to the lockdown in Kashmir on 5 August.
“I told my family to download it at once. But it didn’t work,” he said. “I was able to contact my family after about a month of the clampdown but through the landline.”
Not the ideal solution
Indians desperate to communicate during a communication lockdown may have downloaded these apps in droves, but they don’t solve the problem.
ThePrint downloaded FireChat but was unable to complete the registration process required to begin using it. FireChat has not responded to emails asking about this glitch.
Other Indian users faced the same problem.
Zaid said had tried using FireChat during the internet shutdowns in Kashmir in 2016 and 2018 but was unsuccessful in logging in. Roy said while FireChat had worked successfully last year in an area with no internet, the app may not be working now.
“Firechat is defunct for now,” tweeted Medianama news site founder, Nikhil Pahwa, on 21 December.