goTenna: A grid-busting app for hikers and protesters
Now for anybody who has ever found themselves without precious wireless service at some point (which is to say, everybody), at first glance, the goTenna seems to promise the impossible - you can stay in touch even when the grid lets you down. "No Service, No Problem," reads the optimistic tag line.
Dig a little deeper, however, and what you will find is that goTenna doesn't actually put you back on the grid - it allows you to communicate with somebody else who also has a goTenna and is within 3.6 miles of your location. You can send text messages, send a 'shout-out' to multiple users, or even see where your goTenna groupies are on a map using the goTenna app (available for iOS 7.0 and above and Android 4.x and above).
The goTenna accomplishes this by sending data over a 154-mhz signal - just above the radio bands used by FM stations and airplanes. The goTenna is linked to your mobile device via Bluetooth - and must be nearby (such as in a backpack or taped to your forehead) to make that connection.
All this sounds terrific until you consider the price - a pair of goTennas retails for $299 (though they can be pre-ordered for a limited time for $149), which would set you back quite a bit for a workable goTenna network of two (and more than that if you add a few more friends to your electronic ring of isolation). The device is currently in final approval / production, and the first orders are scheduled for delivery in late fall, 2014.
While I admit the map feature of the goTenna app is pretty interesting - and possibly even life-saving, I am skeptical of the 3.6-mile distance claim, supported by this statement on the goTenna web site:
NOTE: The ranges calculated above use industry-standard RF propagation calculators that assume ideal conditions. They areNow if you ever bought a set of those guaranteed ranges, and can vary greatly in either direction, depending on your specific environment.Motorola two-way radios with the 7, or 10, or 20-mile range, you know that there is no such thing as 'ideal conditions' most places on Planet Earth and the range of these things can be considerably less than the stated maximum. 3.6 miles sounds pretty good until you start considering range-killing obstacles such as trees, hills, rocks, buildings or bad weather.
To alleviate that, however, the goTenna does offer a couple of features not found on the walkie-talkies - for example it will automatically keep trying to send a message if it is not successful on the first attempt. It also offers message self-destruction and encryption - what happens in the woods stays in the woods.
That final feature is what is really interesting about the goTenna - though I'm not so sure hikers are ready to pay that kind of money to text in the woods, a local, encrypted private messaging network could be of interest to dissident political groups, law enforcement, law breakers, secret societies - anybody who wants to stay in touch without the possibility of prying ears lurking on the grid. Encrypted communications is nothing new, but adding the convenience of text messaging and geo-location is certainly a bonus.
And if the price of a goTenna network comes down, we may start seeing hikers tripping over branches and rocks as they text the wonders of nature to their fellow hikers a mile or two away.