Ham Radio vs. GoTenna

According to the origin myths of the internet and mobile technology their decentralized qualities are supposed to function when we’re all hunkered down in our bunkers riding out a nuclear Armageddon. This fanciful narrative might just be a cover for a less appealing reality. In fact, our internet and mobile phones should probably be characterized as an attempt to build a dystopian and highly centralized surveillance network. Our “friends” at Facebook and Google have gone one step beyond the government by figuring out a way to make money off this surveillance.

As CEO of a new startup, Daniela Perdomo challenged this centralization with a provocative product, the goTenna. Johnny, over at Granola Shotgun, has purchased a goTenna and has a post up about it. Basically, the goTenna allows you to bypass the cellphone network and send text messages and your GPS location directly to other goTenna users, within around 1 to 5 miles, via an app on your cellphone that pairs with the goTenna device. GoTenna sells for $179 for a pack of two.

The more goTenna users there are in a particular area, the longer the communication range will be since the devices can hand off messages between each other by forming what’s called a mobile mesh network. A subscription service allows you to send goTenna messages over regular SMS networks so you can reach people who don’t own a goTenna.

The goTenna has been out for a few years and, as evidenced by user maps, if you live in a major metropolitan area I’d expect the coverage to be good. Due to communications regulations you’re only supposed to use a goTenna in the U.S. but the map shows a lot of goTenna users in Europe and a few in Canada.

GoTenna also has competition. Similar devices, some in production others just an Indiegogo dream, include the Gotoky, Beartooth, Sonnet and Radacat. A few of these competitors promise some form of voice communication. One big constraint on all these devices, including the goTenna, is the highly contested and corrupt realm of radio spectrum allocation. In order to develop expanded voice and data capabilities, governments would need to allocate more radio spectrum, unlikely if you don’t have deep pockets to pay for lobbyists and buy off politicians around the world.

Johnny asked me what I thought of the goTenna vs. amateur radio (a.k.a. ham radio) for emergency situations. Without testing a goTenna I can’t really answer that question. I will say that ham radio has a few pluses and minuses.  In order to use a ham radio you have to get a license which isn’t that hard especially since you no longer need to know Morse code. You are not supposed to use ham radio for commercial communication so if Johnny and I wanted to send messages over ham radio about our respective blogs that might be considered out of bounds. Of course, Johnny would also have to have a ham radio license in order for us to chat. And ham radio, in my experience, is not a “plug and play” type of technology. You have to devote a considerable amount of time to learning the technology as well as the communication etiquette and protocols.

On the plus side, with just an inexpensive 2 meter handheld ham radio (you can pick one up for as little as $24), you can communicate via voice in any emergency. Thanks to the Win System, I can use that same 2 meter radio to communicate around the world. And the goTenna is similar to the efforts of ham radio operators to create mesh networks with wifi routers. And ham radio, unlike the goTenna, is by definition open source.

Ham radio is really something you need to take up in a community of other ham radio enthusiasts. One could speculate, as has political scientist, Robert Putnam about the general disinclination in recent decades to do things in groups such as form ham radio clubs, bowling leagues, attend churches or synagogues etc. The goTenna is yet another technology for atomized individuals and for that reason, I think, it’s no coincidence that blockchain enthusiasts have taken to the goTenna. On the other hand, who wants to cede all of our communication abilities to a few centralized and greedy mobile carriers and creepy internet companies? Perhaps the answer is to form more ham radio clubs and encourage interesting and easy to use technologies like the goTenna.

If you’ve used a goTenna or any similar device please leave a comment with your thoughts. And, speaking here as KK6HUF, if you’d like to help me get back to learning how to use ham radio please also get in touch. I could use some help!

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  1. I’ve had my goTenna for a week now. So far I’m ambivalent. I was able to send a grand total of one text message without falling back on the SMS network (which deletes the whole point of an off-grid communications device.) I’m in San Francisco which has challenging topography for a device that requires a clear line-of-site. Lots of hills and tall buildings. I had hoped that the plentiful goTennas all around as depicted on the Mesh Map would help relay the texts, but it didn’t. The one time the system worked was between me on my roof (four stories) and a friend on the 27th floor of an office building downtown. Overall… the goTenna has potential, but it’s not fully baked yet. Once the federal shut down ends I can think about getting a ham radio license…

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