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GoTenna Makes Smartphones into Walkie-Talkies, Sort Of

Rafe Needleman
·Editorial Director, Yahoo Tech

Remember walkie-talkies? When some of us were kids, we had actual handheld voice radios. They sent signals over the air that were picked up directly by their mates. There was no middleman technology: No cell towers. No infrastructure to get overloaded. Nothing extra to pay for.

Now we all have smartphones, and when they don’t work on the cell network, for whatever reason, we can’t communicate. What we need are walkie-talkie iPhones.

The goTenna
The goTenna

GoTenna radio.

That’s what goTenna is building. The new company has just started selling a hardware radio device that pairs with your phone (iOS or Android) over Bluetooth and sends radio text messages the old-fashioned way: straight from one device to another.

To say that again (since it is such a weird idea): GoTenna radios send and receive text messages using old analog radio channels. You use an app on your phone to access the goTenna radio and connect to the goTenna devices over Bluetooth. Even if your phone is miles from a WiFi or cellular signal, it can share messages with other people using goTenna. GoTenna can also transmit its location.

The device is a little too big for your pocket, but it clips easily to a belt or a backpack:

A goTenna clipped to a backpack
A goTenna clipped to a backpack

It has a clip for a backpack or similar.

The device is big because it needs a long antenna. It needs that because it uses a relatively low-frequency part of the radio spectrum, and the lower the frequency the radio uses, the longer the antenna has to be. On the other hand, lower-frequency radio waves travel farther, so you don’t need to rely on nearby cell towers to reach distant people. GoTenna says its devices will transmit up to three miles in the woods or eight miles over open water.

Obviously, if you’re a goTenna owner, you can connect only to other goTenna owners, so the devices are sold in pairs (two for $150 on introductory pricing). Communication between two people is encrypted (unlike the walkie-talkies we used as kids) so it’s private.

If you want to communicate to a larger group, goTenna also has groups, and even an open broadcast mode. This would be useful if goTennas were being used in a crisis or a natural disaster, which is one of the major use cases the founders see for their product.

Screen showing a chat
Screen showing a chat

GoTenna chat app.

GoTenna is not a real-time voice system. It just sends texts, like SMS. There are some technical and usage advantages to this. Technically, SMS messages are very small, so the goTenna system doesn’t need a lot of bandwidth (it transmits at a very slow 9,600 bits per second). That leads to decent battery life: 72 hours in typical use, 30 hours nonstop.

Sending text instead of voice also means that communication is asynchronous. Unlike a walkie-talkie or a telephone conversation, both ends of the discussion don’t have to be online at the same time for it to work. Messages sent to another person who is offline are saved by the radios (either at the sending or receiving end, depending) until the receiver views the message. Senders also get a confirmation that the receiver has seen the message, just like on Apple’s iMessage.

For hikers, emergency responders, families, and anyone wanting to stay in touch far from a home cellular network (like overseas where your phone plan doesn’t work), the goTenna looks like a clever and workable communications solution.

It’s not the only messaging system that works without a cellular connection, though: See FireChat (here’s my write-up), which lets devices communicate through their Bluetooth radios. The range of that is a lot less, obviously. Point to point, Bluetooth doesn’t reach much beyond the size of a big room.

Rafe Needleman can be reached at rafeneedleman@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @rafe.