If you have a smartphone and a “goTenna“ device, you can send text messages even when the cellular phone system is down or overcrowded. The goTenna partners with your phone, like a headset or your car’s hands-free phone system via Bluetooth, and then uses its built-in miniature 2-way radio (MURS) to transmit your text message to other goTenna devices in your vicinity.
When combined with a “goTenna Plus” subscription ($10 annual), it provides topographic mapping and routes. And, it can show you the location of the other goTenna users that are part of your group so that you can rendezvous with them or help them if they are lost. (Assuming that GPS satellites are functioning.)
Yes, it’s true that a cell phone may be able to send text messages even when voice communication doesn’t work. But in reality, during a major disaster or emergency situation, cell phone systems routinely become overcrowded, making it impossible to connect with loved ones by either voice or text.
If you want to be able to communicate during these stressful times, you will need an alternative communication method.
Don’t depend on a mobile phone for emergency communication. There is a good chance that it won’t work.
The ‘goTenna’ is an innovative device that is worth considering for emergency communications, and for when you are with friends or family in a rural or wilderness area which does not have cell phone coverage. But first, you’ll need to understand how the goTenna works, so that you can evaluate if it will meet your needs. For some, a GMRS walkie-talkie or an Amateur (Ham) 2-way radio will be a better choice (see below).
Think of it as a third option. Your smartphone is already designed to work using both the cellular phone network and Internet wi-fi. This just adds a third option, a 2-way radio (151.820 – 154.600 MHz).
How Does the goTenna work?
When you combine a ‘goTenna’ with your iPhone or Android smartphone, you bypass the cellular network and its inherent unreliability. The goTenna is essentially a 2-way radio that is designed to work with your smartphone–but only for sending and receiving text messages. It does not work for voice communication.
Using your phone’s Bluetooth connectivity, the goTenna app, and the goTenna device itself which is essentially a text-dedicated walkie-talkie, you have the power to communicate. Even when you are off-grid you can pair this device with your phone to send text messages to those who are nearby–as long as they also have a goTenna device.
Ease of Use: The ‘goTenna’ is easy to use. Since even young children are often comfortable using smartphones, this add-on device for mobile phones gives both kids and adults alike, an alternative communication method. This is particularly useful during an emergency situation when cell phone towers are busy or unavailable, or when the user is in a no-coverage rural area. No license is required to use this device, nor is there an age requirement. (U.S.)
Range-Boosting Capability: Another advantage of the go-Tenna is that when multiple devices are in use, the radio signal can be automatically relayed by the other goTenna devices which are operating in the same geographic area. This increases the effective transmitting range.
Encryption: The standard signal of the goTenna is encrypted to provide communication privacy, but this feature can be switched off, giving the user the ability to broadcast an emergency text message to all goTenna equipped phones in the immediate area.
GPS and Mapping: The goTenna app can also be paired with your smartphone’s GPS, a feature which adds yet another level of usefulness. With this ‘location’ feature enabled, the goTenna can be used to find a user who is lost. Or, you can use it to send your own location to another goTenna user.
Optional Subscription Service: For those who have opted for the optional “goTenna Plus” service, which requires a modest annual subscription fee, the ‘location’ and ‘mapping’ functionality is expanded to include some additional useful enhancements such as:
- Up to four topographic maps of regions of your choice, to help you with land navigation, and to make it easier to find another user.
- It can be used to repeat-send the same message again-and-again over a 12-hour period, at a timing frequency of your choice. That way, if your initial message was not received, the device will keep resending it, so you don’t need to stop and physically resend your message.
- It can be used to chart your route, which makes it easy to retrace your steps, or you can send your routing information to another user.
- The “plus” subscription lets you ‘group chat’ with up to six users, and it provides ‘message received’ confirmation.
The primary advantage of the ‘goTenna’ is that it is:
- a) simple to use,
- b) compact in size (5.8 x 1 x .5 in. / 147 x 25 x 13 cm),
- c) lightweight (1.8 oz. / 52 g), and
- d) you can learn how to use it in under five minutes.
Cost: Though less expensive than a GMRS radio with a built-in GPS, and cheaper than a single brand-name mobile ham radio, the goTenna is still relatively expensive. (Later in this post, you will find specifics on 2-way radio options.)
The “goTenna MESH” is a cheaper version of the standard, 2-watt “goTenna.” But in our view, it is a waste of money since it has half the power (1-watt) of the standard goTenna, which is already an underpowered device.
Limited Functionality: Though the features of the goTenna are robust, its usefulness is nevertheless limited since it can only be used for texting, and its range is limited to a few miles, maximum.
Professional Versions: The “goTenna Pro” devices use a different radio technology to extend the operating range of the unit, but they are substantially more expensive. This added cost diminishes their usefulness for the emergency communication needs of most people, which is better served by more robust texting + 2-way radio options such as the Garmin Rhino 755t radio (no license required) or a ‘ham’ (amateur radio operator’s license required) 2-way radio.
Range: The biggest downside of the goTenna is its limited range. In a downtown city environment, don’t expect to communicate at a distance greater than ½ – 1 mile. If you are in a nearly flat, unobstructed rural environment (or if you get to a higher vantage point), you might be able to communicate with another goTenna user at a distance of 2 – 4 miles. Despite the fact that users have claimed successful communication at much greater distances, such success is highly unusual and cannot be expected.
Note: Both the sender and receiver need to have a goTenna and a smartphone, and have them switched “on.” The goTenna will probably not work from inside a concrete, masonry or steel structure, and it will have limited connectivity when used from inside a vehicle.
Short of hacking the device, there is no way to extend its range, other than to make sure it is not in contact with the human body when in use. For best reception and to achieve the greatest range, carry the goTenna on the outside, very top of a knapsack, or hold it by its strap over your head while transmitting. The unit itself will not operate properly if held in the hand or next to the body.
Battery Life: The built-in Lithium-Ion battery of the goTenna has a useful life of about 20-hours, but this can be extended by switching the device and your phone “off” when they are not needed. To further maximize the battery life of the goTenna and your smartphone, switch your phone to “airline” mode, followed by turning “on” the phone’s GPS.
Like most mobile phones, the goTenna’s battery can be recharged in about two hours using the supplied USB power cord. Unfortunately, the device cannot be re-powered using disposable batteries, but a battery powered recharger can be used to recharge the unit partially.
Durability: The goTenna is not waterproof, but it is water-resistant so it can be exposed to rain. The goTenna is reasonably durable, but it is not ruggedized to military specifications.
GPS & Mapping Features: The GPS and mapping features are dependent on the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which can be damaged, turned off by the government, or intentionally misdirected when the U.S. Government has identified a threat which might utilize the GPS system to coordinate an attack. Therefore, even elaborate GPS devices cannot be relied upon as your only navigation tool.
Legal Issue: It is technically illegal to use the goTenna outside the U.S. However, since these devices have such limited range and look innocuous, their use may not create a legal problem for the user. Nevertheless, some governments may consider them illegal-tech.
Electronic Devices: Electronic communication devices like mobile phones are inherently unreliable and subject to damage, as well as exhausting their battery power, so a backup communication method is essential. Therefore you will need more than a goTenna, but this device may still be a viable backup communication tool that is worth considering. It is included here due to its ease of use by adults and teens alike, and because it is a lightweight add-on which can transform your phone into functioning texting device, even when the cellular network is inoperable. We have also included it here because we consider it to be a “kid friendly” device that phone-savvy children can quickly learn to use.
Click Here for additional ‘goTenna’ details.
Other Emergency Communication Options
FRS/GMRS 2-Way Walkie-Talkie Radios. (In the U.S., no license required, but regulations in other countries vary greatly.) The inexpensive hardware store/sports store models of these radios are rarely adequate, and in our testing, none of them came even remotely close to being able to communicate over the distances claimed.
Nevertheless, a higher quality GMRS radio such as those made by Motorola, Midland, Uniden, or Cobra, are worth considering. These will have a similar operating range to that of the goTenna, but maintaining a stable voice connection over a radio is more difficult than the digital signal of the goTenna so it can have a greater effective range than most FRS/GMRS radios.
FRS/GMRS walkie-talkies for voice-only communication, are available at a fraction of the cost of the goTenna. But those with the same transmitting power of the goTenna (2-watts) will typically have 15% less operating range. However, high-power GMRS radios are readily available, such as the Midland GXT1000VP5, which boasts the maximum legal power of 5-watts.
If the GPS features are important to you, the Garmin Rhino 755t also has a built-in GPS. Since it also provides the capability of voice communication and text, rather than just text, it is far more versatile than the goTenna. It can even monitor NOAA weather frequencies. On the downside is the high cost, it’s not quite as easy to use, and the map screen is smaller (3-inch), which is far smaller than some cell phones.
Notwithstanding, detailed and purpose-specific maps can be uploaded to the Rhino 750 series devices. The 755t comes with color topographic maps for the United States, preinstalled. Yet, you may want to add detailed local maps for the area where you will be operating.
If you buy the Rhino 750 rather than the 755t, and later decide you want to add the Garmin U.S. 100K map that comes with the 755t, the cost is $ 100. For both the 750 and 755t, add-on maps are available for specific purposes such as marine and aviation, city maps, and unique maps such as the $80 Garmin “HuntView” maps for each State (2 for TX and CA). These include added features such as landowner names and boundaries, fuel locations, and land boundaries, all applied to a digital topography map that is equivalent to 1:24,000 scale U.S. Geological Survey maps. The HuntView map also includes Garmin’s BaseCamp software. This makes it possible to tether a Rhino 750-series device with a laptop computer to establish a command center for charting the position of the devices operating in the area.
Another plus is that the Rhino 750 is far more durable than the cell phone/goTenna combination required for the goTenna system to work. And, the Rhino 750 is sufficiently waterproof to withstand submersion in 1-meter of water for 30-minutes (IPX7).
The Garman Rhino ‘700′ is less expensive, but it has a B&W screen which negates many map features, and maps cannot be uploaded to the device. Garmin also makes similar-looking devices which are GPS-only, without the 2-way radio features.
Amateur (Ham) Radio (Requires a license). These radios come in various sizes and transmitting power, but a budget radio such as an 8-watt BaoFeng can be purchased for under $50 (each). Whereas a radio capable of transmitting around the world will be larger and be connected to a larger antenna, as well.
If the need is for greater operating range, nothing beats an Amateur (Ham) radio. These 2-way radios can be used for both voice and digital communication, and they can be operated over impressive distances. With the right equipment and environmental conditions, they can be used to communicate to those who are on the other side of the world.
Even a budget Amateur radio, such as the miniature-size BaoFeng UV-5R Tri-Power (8-watt) 2-way radio, or the improved version of the same radio, the BaoFeng BF-F8HP (8 watt) which has a stronger case, larger battery, and improved antenna, are capable of voice communication at 5x+ the distance of a goTenna–and they are less expensive. Even when you add in the cost of an external magnet-mount antenna such as the Nagoya UT-308UV which vastly improves radio communication from inside a vehicle, the total price can still be less expensive than a goTenna. However, these radios do require a license, and advanced features beyond voice communication require more expertise and add-on equipment. For more information about Amateur radio and licensing, visit www.ARRL.com.
Reminder: To communicate with family and friends, they will need to also be equipped with a goTenna, or a walkie-talkie which uses the same radio frequencies.
You do have choices when it comes to emergency communication. But to communicate with family and friends during a major disaster or emergency situation, you will need something other than your mobile phone. Don’t expect your cell phone to work during a widespread emergency. A communication device such as a goTenna or 2-way radio is a necessity.