FireChat's developer wants to give IoT a mesh-network boost

The Open Garden Network could link many devices and apps for broader Internet access

TrackR makes small tagging devices that can be attached to pets, keys or electronics for GPS tracking.

TrackR makes small tagging devices that can be attached to pets, keys or electronics for GPS tracking.

Internet of Things devices that are too small to reach the Internet by themselves will get help from a vast network of nearby smartphone users if the latest plan from FireChat vendor Open Garden succeeds.

The Open Garden Network, announced on Monday at the CTIA trade show in Las Vegas, is software that lets devices and apps get online via a mesh network made up of ordinary consumer gadgets such as smartphones and tablets. Over Bluetooth Low Energy or Wi-Fi Direct, each link in the network connects to another participating device until it reaches one that's within range of a cell or a Wi-Fi access point.

Linking small, power-sipping devices to the Internet is one of the main challenges in IoT, an area that's likely to be a major focus of the annual U.S. mobile show. Both consumer wearables and enterprise machines and sensors are expected to make up much of the wireless universe in the next few years.

The first company taking advantage of the system is Phone Halo, which makes TrackR, tiny coin-sized tags that users can attach to something valuable in order to track its location via GPS. The TrackR tags don't have cellular or Wi-Fi radios because they would take up too much space and power, so they already use a concept like Open Garden's. Users who've tagged their things use a TrackR app to find out where they are. The tags communicate their GPS readings through other phones that have the TrackR app.

That's a big network, because there are 250,000 TrackR tags in use, according to the company. But with Open Garden Network, it's going to get bigger because TrackR devices will also be able to communicate through any phone equipped with FireChat, Open Garden's app for online and offline communication.

The Open Garden Network software could draw many more apps and IoT devices into that system. The more partners Open Garden signs up, the bigger and more useful the network would get. The users of all apps that take advantage of the Open Garden Network would become conduits for all the other apps and devices on that network.

The process is just beginning, said Christophe Daligault, Open Garden's chief marketing officer.

"The device space is new for us and we don't know quite yet who will be interested," Daligault said. "In terms of apps, it's anyone who wants to increase the connectivity time or user time."

App developers and device manufacturers can get into the network by using an Open Garden API (application programming interface) and licensing a software key from the company. Open Garden provides a software development kit for getting started. Individual users won't have to do any configuration or setup, Daligault said.

The company's approach is two-pronged: For IoT devices, it would offer indirect Internet access for things that couldn't otherwise get online. For mobile apps, it would give users access in more places so they can spend more time playing a game, chatting or doing other activities that require a connection. That extended online time could make the Open Garden Network a good deal for mobile operators, too, a pitch that the company is making to carriers at CTIA.

Mobile operators could incorporate the Open Garden Network API in their handset software to give subscribers better coverage, he said. When subscribers can't reach the carrier's nearest cell, they may be able to reach it via a string of Open Garden users in between. With Bluetooth Low energy, for example, each hop is about 100 feet (30 meters), but the network can make multiple hops, Daligault said. That could improve the subscriber experience at large events, where there may be many active devices but not enough cellular capacity.

However, the network isn't intended to be a panacea for overtaxed cells or poor coverage. It's designed to carry relatively small amounts of data, such as those GPS coordinates that TrackR devices send, rather than video streams or other heavy traffic, Daligault said.

Users who download an app that can connect to the Open Garden Network won't end up as the sole Internet link for a mob of people and use up a month's worth of data allowance on their behalf, Daligault said. When that user goes out of cell coverage, they'll get online through others and not be paying for any of the bits.

"You get as much as you give," Daligault said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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