Emergency communications are important… maybe not today. Hopefully not tomorrow. But disaster strikes when we least expect it. If we are wholly unprepared… it may hurt you and those you love.
After a solid year of earnestly trying to iron out the wrinkles with Gotenna, it’s only prudent to look at other options for when the towers fall. Gotenna has great potential, and if they don’t screw it all up, they may have a great product soon. However, in my humble opinion, it’s still only half-baked. The central premise of Gotenna mesh is that it has fatfingered emergency communications and amateur / ham radio / CB / Murs / FRS / GMRS walkie talkies … by marrying with smartphones…making it easy for anyone to use without any worry of navigating the maelstrom of treacherous federal legislation that is FCC and DOC/DHS export restrictions. Gotenna automatically determines your location based on gps and configures what frequencies and power settings you are allowed to use without any license needed whatsoever, wherever in the world you are. Not only that, but Gotenna ensures that when you use it, you can’t accidentally interfere with any preexisting official or emergency communications channels ANYWHERE in the world. And, most importantly, Gotenna wholly obviates the need to learn anything about electrical engineering, radio theory, or complicated vcr-like radio settings screens. Any idiot can use Gotenna because it works on your phone and holds your hand guiding you the whole way and helping you ignore settings you don’t need. It’s the iphone of amateur radio / emergency communications. In a lot of ways, it’s the BaoFeng of radios – with a little searching, you can get one for less than $50. It’s so cheap that there’s no entry barrier for new users. But yet, it’s an American company with solid quality control and built here in the Americas. Not likely to have Chinese backdoors, user manuals exclusively in Chinese, or their notorious quality control 😉 … and Gotenna is wholly legal to toss in your suitcase and take anywhere in the world. It uses Australian open-source encryption, Bouncy Castle, so there’s no worry of violating federal or international law without an export/import license.
However, there are some outstanding issues and inherent flaws in the Gotenna Mesh and Gotenna Pro devices which stop them from being widely adopted… yet, and may make it dangerous to deploy or rely on.
1. Gotenna Mesh offers Emergency Chat and Emergency SOS features, along with a headless mode that doesn’t even require a working phone to call for help. Loved ones can click the power button five times and trigger the SOS beacon with a preprogrammed emergency message (e.g., name, address, blood type, backup contacts, phone number, radio channel & callsign…) However, there is NO CONSPICUOUS warning that the Gotenna device does NOT have a gps chip. So any gps location being transmitted in this SOS Emergency broadcast mode MAY NOT HAVE ACCURATE LOCATION of the call for help. That’s kind of dangerous.
2. Gotenna Mesh offers SMS Relay mode (basically, if you have no service, this allows you to send simple cellphone text messages and gps location across the internet to anyone in the world even if you don’t have any internet or cellsignal, by way of the Gotenna radio, itself, through ANY other Gotenna user within tens of miles of range* who does have a working signal. HOWEVER, again, there is no conspicuous warning to users, that there are some serious flaws with this text relay. For example, this feature ONLY SENDS ONE WAY messages – there is NO WAY to receive any response to your message.
3. Another huge flaw is that Gotenna nowhere conspicuously warns their users that these SMS text messages, or even their Emergency SOS, or Emergency Chat features are not and cannot ever be delivered to 911, 999, Geos, or ANY emergency Call Center (PSPAPs). Literally cannot be sent. It violates the sms relay service (Twilio) that Gotenna uses to deliver these messages across the internet. For some reason, Gotenna will not answer questions about why they won’t consider using another sms relay provider, like, e.g., Bandwidth.com / @Bandwidth that gladly offer 911 Text Relay services (#Text911).
4. Yet another gamestopper is that inasmuch as Gotenna Mesh CANNOT operate in bidirectional mode in text sms (or even provide unidirectional message to 911 services)… then you are limited from communicating effectively, in an emergency, with anyone who does not have a Gotenna Mesh device. The problem with this, is that Gotenna, Inc. markets and sells an incompatible product, the Gotenna PRO device, to first-responders- which does not work whatsoever with Gotenna Mesh devices. The device first responders have cannot ever receive, or even locate, a Gotenna Mesh device held by survivors – even in Emergency mode.
In sum, a loved one could easily trigger the Emergency SOS mode thinking that their message will ultimately be delivered to someone who can help. However, (1) even if their message gets through, the other party may have no idea where they are – and can’t ask for clarification; (2) and even if it fails they may never get a warning that it didn’t go through; (3) it will never even attempt to deliver the message to 911; and (4) first-responders nearby cannot receive the message with the devices they are likely to carry.
So, my recommendation, is to get you and your loved-ones Ham Radio certified. You can get your Technician class license in under 8 hours of study on ARRL.org for free. You only need to pay about $15 to take the test. It’s only 35 questions drawn from a pool of 423 questions. You only need to get 26 right. Especially if you are a geek or electrically disposed, at all, most of the questions are common-sense. @Hoshnasi has some really great recommendations on his youtube channel and walks you through the test, what radio to buy (e.g., BaoFeng UV-5r ($19), Yaesu FT-60 ($149ish), and how to avoid interfering with emergency or official communications.
If you are a geek, get yourself a usb SDR like RTL-SDR for about $10 on ebay with an antenna that will work with your laptop or home pc. If you are a mobile geek, get a USB-C to USB-A (fullsize female) host dongle at walmart or online or a micro-USB on the go (OTG) to USB-A for use with your android tablet or phone. The cool thing is that you can pickup ANY frequency, ANY channel FM/AM/NOAA/FRS/GMRS/MURS/ Ham UHF/VHF/ marine, air, police, fire, ems… with free software like SDR # or HDSDR.
If you are really cool, check out products like Mobilinkd or a wired modem, or even just 3.5 and 2.5mm cables to marry your smartphone/tablet/pc with your ham radio for advanced features like APRS for two way, long range, digital/analog tactical communications with automated GPS location reporting.
Nothing can prepare you like becoming familiar with what’s already out there- how to listen and how to ask for help when you really need it to help you, your loved ones, and neighbors in your community. Once you are all setup, take a look at volunteering with groups like ARES.