Flickr photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast,

Apps that Work When Your Phone Can’t

Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. Public safety apparatuses are becoming increasingly reliant on networks controlled by private companies. There are two apps that have been very helpful during these crises because they do not rely solely on cellular service: Zello and Firechat. These two apps, and other apps that employ the same tech, may become a part of the at-home disaster kits everyone should have. More importantly, communities in geographically-risky areas may start to use apps that rely on alternative forms of connection in times of crisis. The issue of connectivity during natural disasters also interacts with the issue of changing net neutrality policy and the protection of the right private companies to control the flow of or “throttle” cellular data.

Apps that work without a cellular connection

Zello and FireChat are two apps that have become mainstays on the cellphones of people who live in areas affected by natural disasters, especially in the United States. (Information on the domestic technological responses to natural disasters in other countries can be found here.)

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey which affected many communities surrounding Houston, Texas, a “Cajun Navy” emerged, using Zello as their main form of communication. Features of the app promote the use of voice messages rather than text messages, which allows for more inferences and information to be gleaned from communication. Somebody’s age or hometown can sometimes be discerned by vocal attributes.

FireChat uses mesh networks to connect users. As such, these devices do not need to be connected to a cellular tower or Wi-Fi to work. Mesh networks have been introduced to regular internet users in the wake of the repeal of net neutrality protections passed during President Obama’s presidency. Mesh networks are comprised of connection points, or “nodes”, that use signals from sources other than those provided by major ISP’s. Zello requires that a user’s cellphone’s data and Wi-Fi be turned on. Users say however that the app can work with very little or no discernable signal.

Santa Clara Fire Department and Verizon: Legal Battleground after Net Neutrality

Apps on personal cell phones are galvanizing and life-saving tools for civilians to communicate with loved ones in preparation for and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Professional and volunteer aid providers also rely on these free apps in their rescue efforts. Many public entities, like fire departments, still use technology that requires a connection facilitated by private ISP’s during times of natural disaster. In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission repealed many of the provisions that protected consumers (in this case, the public entities, like fire departments) from private internet service providers adjusting or “throttling” the flow of internet.

Some of the worst fires in California history have taken place this past summer 2018. Firefighters from around the state were called to affected areas, and Santa Clara County fire department was one of the departments closest to the most scorched areas. The department has a high-tech truck, called the “Incident Support Unit”, which relies on robust internet signals to act as a command-and-control centers for teams of firefighters that are closer to the actual flames. The internet service provider in this area is Verizon, and they had been reducing internet speeds in this area. Verizon subsequently apologized and removed all caps on internet coverage in the fire area. They also removed caps on internet service in Hawaii in response to flooding caused by Hurricane Lane. Major ISP’s pre-emptively removed all service caps in preparation for Hurricane Florence and publicized that they were going to provide free talk and text to all cell-phone users, regardless of payment plans, for set dates.

In an age of reliance on connection between devices, should the government become responsible for providing the rescue services if they too are at the mercy of private companies? Should we trust that ISP’s are sufficiently at the mercy of public opinion that they would not throttle service in areas experiencing emergencies? Do the answers lie in policy or in mesh networks? Unfortunately, it seems that the answers, at least in part, lie in the practices that emerge in the wake of future natural disasters.

Isabella Havas

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2020; U.C. Berkeley, B.A. 2012. ©2018, Isabella Havas.