Well, I guess Facebook is good for something. I was having one of those mindless moments where scrolling through the feed seemed like a better thing to do than, you know, reading a book, or working out, or bettering myself in some way. It was the same stuff over and over, but then a promotion for a product caught my eye. It was called goTenna Off Grid Device, and it hailed as being a radio-based, off-the-grid communications tool that lets you send texts and share location data.
I bit the lure – hook, line, and sinker. I checked out the goTenna Facebook page, then migrated to their website. The goTenna looked like a promising new-fangled device, and soon I had a pair of them winging my way for a review.
Meet The goTenna
The goTenna, put simply, is a communications device that links to your smartphone via Blutooth-LE (Low Energy). Using the goTenna app (which you have to download – don’t worry, it’s free), you pair a goTenna with your Android or IOS based device, and you instantaneously have the ability to chat via text message with any other active goTenna within range. The goTenna also allows you to send those other goTenna users your location, which is represented on a map – a map which you must download ahead of time (also for free via the goTenna app). These are the two basic functions of the device, and it accomplishes these functions completely independent of a wireless network or cell service, using long-range (151-154 MHz) radio waves to communicate with other GoTenna users. However, the goTenna doesn’t allow voice or video calling, or data transfer. It sticks to a simple formula for basic communication, and it works. Let’s dig deeper.
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The goTenna is a small (5.8 inches long, 1 inch wide, ½ inch thick with the antenna collapsed) plastic and aluminum device with a built-in nylon strap that sports a loop and a snap button for securing a goTenna to, well, anything that will fit inside the loop. An antenna pulls out from the top, activating the goTenna and telling it to start communicating with its paired smartphone via Bluetooth. Pushing the antenna back into the goTenna deactivates the device with a satisfying “click”. It has an indicator light on the outside of the casing, which is used via different flashing patterns to communicate if the goTenna has paired, if it’s searching, once a message has been received, etc. Underneath a small dust proof door, there’s the expected micro-USB port on the bottom of the goTenna to hook the device, via included charging cables, to a charger. A tiny red LED next to the USB port shows the charging status. The goTenna’s lithium-polymer battery is sealed, meaning that it cannot be removed or replaced, and will eventually show declining battery life like any other battery-powered device…though this will take years of constant use.
The goTenna is water-resistant and “weatherproof”, meaning it can be latched on your pack during a rainstorm. However, if it goes swimming with you, don’t expect it to work afterwards. It is dust-tight as well. The goTenna has been engineered to be very durable – I’ve dropped mine onto my tile floor multiple times from waist height with zero ill effects. In short, it’s meant to be useful to many types of people – whether you’re a hunter or fisherman communicating with buddies in your party, mountain climbers who might take a tumble down a hill, or anyone else who might be in adverse conditions that require off-grid communications. In my experience, ice and snow have built up on the goTenna while packing it in the woods in a Maine winter and during a February ice fishing trip – it shrugged off the cold and elements with aplomb. I have every confidence it will withstand most inclement conditions as long as it isn’t submerged.
Making The goTenna Work For You
As stated, the goTenna interfaces with your smartphone (IOS or Android) via Bluetooth LE. I should say this now: the gotenna will not work with your old Nokia flip-phone; a caveat to the system is that it requires a relatively modern smartphone. goTenna’s website says that the device will work with Apple iPods and iPads and other tablets; however, I’m not sure how the GPS location-finding function will work with these devices if there is no GPS built-in to the device.
Anyhow, your first step: order your goTenna. These can be purchased online via the goTenna Website. They get ordered in pairs or “family” packs of four goTennas. As of right now, the pairs go for $199.00 with free shipping, and the family pack saves you a few bucks per unit at $389 – also shipped to your door for free. They come in four different strap colors to differentiate between the individual units – purple, orange, green, and blue.
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Once you have the goTennas in your hot little hands, you need to download the goTenna app via The Google Play store (if you’re running an Android 4.3 or higher-based phone) or via iTunes for iOS 8.4 and up-based Apple products. The app is free and a quick download. Once you have the app installed on your smartphone and you fire it up, your phone will initiate a simple, easy-to-follow setup that creates an account and links your phone to your selected goTenna; this is about a three-minute process. Once you have the app set up and your goTenna paired, you have a few options to play with.
You’ll first be brought to the main message overview screen. This shows a list of all the people you’ve sent messages to. As an option, you can import the contacts on your phone to have their numbers and possible goTenna contacts saved in the app. You can access the contacts via the menu, which is accessed by the icon in the upper left of the screen. At the bottom right, you have a round blue button that allows you to write a new message to other goTenna users, via one of three processes:
-The Shout Chat: This allows you send out a “shout” message to any other active goTenna users in range.
-The Group Chat: A way to communicate with multiple known goTenna users at once, useful for hunting parties, SAR, camp buddies, etc.
-1-to-1 Chat: A standard one-on-one goTenna-to-g0Tenna message, very similar to an SMS or text message.
There is also an “Emergency” chat option, but when selected, you are directed via text in a bright red box to keep chats in this option dedicated to true emergencies. It broadcasts an emergency message to anyone with a goTenna who is within range.
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To send a message to another goTenna user, simply tap the new message icon, choose your goTenna-utilizing recipient, and start typing. Hit the “send” icon when you’re done. The message will show a little moving icon while the goTennna sends the message. If the message was sent to the recipient successfully, a little green check mark appears in the corner of your message. If the goTenna was unable to send the message, a small red exclamation mark appears. It will also tell you the time you sent your last message. You can request the location of other goTenna users, so they can “ping” you or attach their location to their messages. You can also block them if desired.
Another function of the goTenna is the map view; you tap the little map icon at the top of the screen to actuate this task. Once you download the goTenna app, your device communicates with your phone’s GPS to show your current location to yourself; you can also “ping” other users to show your location on the map, or include location in text messages (this locaton is transferred to the map, not communicated via the message screen.). If you’re heading to an obscure area to fly fish for rainbow trout in northern Colorado, you simply download the Colorado map ahead of time. This will allow you to utilize the map – which is saved to your phone – to show your location while off the data grid, unlike most other map apps. The accuracy is very good; I’m not sure of the location accuracy tolerances, but whenever I used the map, the little blue dot showed me exactly where I knew I was. I would imagine the location services are effected by standard GPS impediments: cloud cover, buildings, line of sight to satellites, etc.
A nice touch: the battery life remaining on your paired goTenna is available to view easily through the app as well. Battery life has been excellent: once I got the goTennas, I plugged them in to top off the charge, and actually I haven’t had to charge them yet. If the goTenna is constantly on, battery life is expected to be about 24 hours. If you’re constantly using it to have extensive message exchanges, it can shorten, depending on usage. If a communications schedule is maintained between users, keeping the goTenna off between scheduled message times, you can keep a goTenna with a charge for quite some time – days. I have not seen a loss of battery charge when kept turned off for days on end.
These are the basic functions of the goTenna – for now. The website promises updates in the future – and I’ll admit that there is a lot of promise for added functionality for this neat little communications gadget. As of right now, the short list of basic action items the goTenna accomplishes means that the goTenna is very, very simple to use and still pretty effective at what it does. But how effective is it?
Range to Target?
The next obvious question should be: “Okay, what is the range?” And it’s a valid question. goTenna says that the range varies depending on terrain – it functions on basic line-of-sight principles. If you’re in a wooded forest or in an apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, your range will be limited. But goTenna boasts that on the rare opportunity you may have broadcasting mountaintop to mountaintop, you might even be able to find a 50-mile range within grasp. Most of us operate somewhere in the middle of these extremes, so I decided to try the goTenna out in a variety of situations to see how it worked. I loaded the app on my LG G4 phone and went to work.
The first opportunity I had to use the goTenna was on an ice fishing trip up in Northern Maine, on the shores of Maine’s largest body of water, Moosehead Lake. We only gave the goTenna a run a couple times, but across clear ice, we were able to send messages across a couple miles of open, clear air across a frozen lake, with a small island between us. Message exchanges were quick and easy, (even considering our advanced state of inebriation – a requirement in Maine ice fishing) so I imagine that we could have stretched the range further if we desired.
Next, I coerced a 60-year-old coworker to download the goTenna app on his Samsung Galaxy S4. We work in a 300,000 square foot manufacturing facility, with concrete walls, steel columns, metal racks filled with aluminum extrusions, large CNC machines running, plus a huge electronic computer server room and 60 or so computers, and 80+ cellphones operating at any given time. I had him stay in his office, which was conveniently located near a corner of the building. I then walked around the entire facility, stopping to message at key points neat equipment, material, or other possible reception intrusions. The goTenna worked flawlessly throughout the entire building even though walls, which impressed me. I honestly didn’t think the goTenna would pass the big concrete building test.
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The next major test I ran was with my teenage son. I had him load the app on his iPhone 6S, and he plunked the antenna next to him. I then hopped in my pickup and drove around our hilly suburban village home area, pulling into different areas to message him. I had pretty good success closer to the house, out to a Google Maps-measured 1,567 feet. Then I started to have difficulty getting messages to go through. I turned airplane mode off (I had engaged it to make sure I wasn’t letting any data through) and texted my son – he wasn’t getting replies back to me, either. I told him to open a window and locate the goTenna outside. He did so, and we kept going. He was able to sit on the couch in standard slumped modern teenager fashion with the TV, iPad, and his cellphone on, and have the goTenna 15 feet away outside the house, and keep communicating with me (Bluetooth range is about 20 feet). The antenna outside of the house made a difference; I was able to send messages again.
I continued to drive around, again stopping at points that I could find on Google Earth to measure distances from. I got to 3,499 feet from the house with success – probably owing to the slight elevation increases I was driving up – before the village houses and surrounding woodlands starting taking their toll. I’d pull over and hold the antenna up in the air, move my location slightly, and keep trying – and I eventually got a message to go through at 5,945 feet (over a mile) once – but that was about the maximum I could get through the woods. Elevation and clear line of sight helps.
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I haven’t had the chance to go long, long distance over clear, open ranges, or in large urban areas as of yet. But based on my tests so far, goTenna’s predictions on their website under “how it works” have been pretty close to spot-on. I plan on using the goTenna to communicate between bird hunting parties this fall up in Northern Maine, where communications and coordinations have been spotty due to an almost complete lack of cell reception; the goTenna should be just the ticket.
The goTenna IS encrypted for privacy, utilizing a 384-bit elliptic curve point-to-point encryption process. I’m not going to go into the tech specs of the goTenna, because I’ll admit I don’t know much about that stuff. However, if you love geeking out over such things, I would heartily recommend going to the goTenna website and reading their “FAQ” section for tech specs as well as a LOT of other information on the goTenna that ranges from the best locations to keep your antenna, to Bluetooth range from your phone to the goTenna, firmware updates, methods of increasing battery life, what effects signal range, and more.
I tested the goTenna with a wide range of phones, including an iPhone 4S, Motorola DROID RAZR M, Samsung Galaxy S4, iPhone 6, iPhone 6S, and my LG G4. As long as your smartphone has Bluetooth and meets minimum operating system requirements of Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) or higher, or Apple iOS 8.4 or higher, you should be good to go. The app ran flawlessly in all the devices. The app interface was clean, simple, intuitive, and easy to use…my 60-year-old technologically befuddled coworker was able to use the app with zero coaching…so that’s saying something. If you have a smartphone and can use it to text, you can use a goTenna.
The goTenna is definitely a viable off-the-grid communications device. Range is limited, but the range is a pretty useful one, depending on your location and terrain. Once the app is loaded, the phone does not require a data or cellular connection to function; it is completely independent. You could lock a pair of these in a Faraday cage with a properly-sized solar panel to charge the units, along with a couple ready-to-go smartphones with the app loaded on them (perhaps the old phones you don’t use anymore after an upgrade?), and you could have basic communications even after an EMP, or complete power grid outage. The goTenna is light, small, portable, rechargeable, weather resistant, silent, and tough – can you say the same for your battery-dependent walkie-talkies? It’s something to consider when you’re looking at a solution for off-the-grid communications – even if you have a large group of people in your crew. You can send text and GPS location to one or multiple people at a time, even when you don’t have service. Take a long, hard look at the goTenna to accentuate your communications plans – it actually works, and works very well within its intended envelope.
All photos by Drew
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