In late 2015, I reviewed the original goTenna. It’s fair to say that, right off the bat, I was pretty smitten with the concept of this tech, but back then, I felt the goTenna was too far ahead of its time due to the inherent range issues. Communication platforms only work on a mass scale if they manage to get wide adoption. Our current grid is hardly the pinnacle of human technology, but it’s what we have because the standards we adopted force us to stick to them beyond their useful life. I’m looking at you copper based networking!
This review should be simple enough on the surface. What we have is an upgraded version of the original goTenna, oh and Mesh support – easy right? The problem with looking at technology in a vacuum, especially disruptive technology like the goTenna Mesh is that if you focus on the product at face value, then you are missing the point entirely. This is a little dongle that offers decentralised comms over UHF by painlessly linking with your smartphone and offering you an intuitive generic messaging platform that will feel innately familiar to anyone who has ever used a modern phone. If that’s all you care about the let me spare you some time and just break down the basics and you can assess pretty quickly for yourself if it’s for you or not.
Listed Specifications & My Own Thoughts
goTenna Mesh Range
The listed range is 4 miles ‘ish in open terrain. That sounds like a fair assessment to me based on my own limited testing, but due to UK regulation (we do love our bureaucracy!) my output power is lower (0.5 watt) than my American comrades (1 watt). Objectively, I would say that to get 2 devices to chat happily with a range of 3 miles between them, we would have to have some pretty ideal conditions that are not necessarily likely in the real world. I live on the 8th floor of a building facing a large park and I guesstimate that I could hit a 1 mile radius comfortably as long as buildings don’t get in the way. Bare in mind that I am somewhat crippled (effective range reduced by 10-25%) by silly European regulation, most of you reading this won’t be.
The Mesh network feature allows your range to go vastly beyond your own geographic limitations by bouncing messages from one goTenna device to the next until it is delivered to the right recipient, all with full end-to-end encryption. Those devices don’t even need to be connected to act as a relay station (more on this later). The maximum amount of hops a message can make is currently around 4 (who knows what the future may bring). This is the real game changer and what I will be raving about in the meat of the review.
I’ll mention that goTenna sent me some use-case examples where the range hit 6.5 miles over 2 hops. This completely crushes FRS/GMRS Walkie Talkies in terms of consistent reach. Another example would be people using drones to create a relay station. One particular individual successfully sent messages to somebody else 10 miles away using a drone, and even then that was because the individual was 10 miles away. Who knows what kind of reach you can get using some creative thought. Needless to say, it’s pretty damn far. I mention this because I haven’t personally done it, however, it has been reported and I don’t want to insinuate that my environment and tested use case is the standard or somehow the at the extreme end of the curve. I didn’t use specific techniques to maximize range, rather, I used my goTenna as I would normally (clipped to my backpack) and didn’t give it much thought beyond that.
At the end of the day, as goTenna states – what you are really doing is operating within the limits of physics within any given situation. So bare that in mind as discussing range in absolute terms is silly due to the environment dictating so much of its performance.
goTenna lists the Mesh’s time on standby at 24 hrs. I can get 27 hrs with about 10% left in the tank. Make of that what you will. I will say that the charging speed is pretty extreme, so extreme in fact that I reached out for comment and they said it was normal. I went from 67% to 90% battery in 10 minutes. This is crazy. goTenna state that it takes the Mesh 1-2 hrs to charge fully, which is an important consideration as you would want a device that sips power instead of guzzling it if you are depending on solar panels in the outdoors.
Build, Toughness & Other Misc Specs
The original goTenna had a deploy-able antenna. The Mesh is both a smaller device and doesn’t have any moving parts for it to work optimally. It’s a self contained UHF radio stick, basically. The Mesh is weatherproof (not waterproof) and the aluminium and rubber construction is both sexy as hell and super tough. The original goTenna was already nicely designed and manufactured for a startup product, but this is next level stuff. If it was branded Garmin instead of goTenna, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. It’s functionally pretty perfect – definitely not a beta product despite its roots as a Kickstarter venture.
Mesh Networking & What It Entails
Now let’s talk about what I really want to talk about. The gist of mesh networking is the ability for data to be carried forward by independent devices to its intended destination, like pass-the-bottle on steroids (an oversimplification, I know). The important part of a mesh network and why it differs from our current network platforms is that mesh networks are decentralized by design. Here is a self-evident truth folks: you are currently reading this review on a network you don’t own, where you do not control the flow of the data, and where the transparency of these network operators is questionable at best.
For a public website like MTJS, this is not a big deal. I accept that the nature of regulation means I never truly have freedom with regards to something I supposedly own. When it comes to communication, however, it’s a more difficult question. Currently, we have the veneer of freedom of communication, but in this crazy world, it’s not hard to see why a decentralized communication platform that is out of reach of corporate networks would be a sensible option. It’s interesting to communicate with the goTenna and realize that this is probably the first message I sent to Elise in the past decade that has been between us and between us only. No datamining, no retention of messages by third parties, no mass capture of metadata by the powers that be, etc., etc..
Just one message sent to another; in a vacuum. No central authority (perceived or otherwise) to tamper, observe, or record. It’s crazy to me that this is such a unique and rare thing. Where having control over your communication has become a feature. Madness.
The goTenna Mesh & Anonymity
I’ll take this opportunity to get off my ideological high horse and mention a few things that goTenna doesn’t often mention, but that I think are pretty damn awesome. First of all, I don’t need to use personally identifiable information if I don’t want to. goTenna doesn’t have my e-mail address, phone number, or anything else – and I like it that way. The point of an off grid network is for me to be off the grid. You see that GID number in the bottle left screenshot? That’s my glorified phone number for goTenna to goTenna communication. It’s a fantastic option and I really like it. I use WhatsApp a lot, but the fact I have to give people my phone number for them to find me has always been a sticking point for me. It’s not that I have a problem “being out there,” as a blogger I willingly give up a lot of my privacy, but the important aspect – to me – is that I should get to chose which parts of my life to share and with whom.
goTenna doesn’t need my phone number to work out of the box. Neither does WhatsApp for that matter. And yet WhatsApp requires it, whilst goTenna gives you an opt out. This is the way companies should be run, with options and the users in mind. Not mindless data guzzling for the sake of building a monolithic database.
The App & User Interface
The user interface is extremely intuitive. I shan’t drone on about it because I know goTenna will change it as new features/designs become available, but it’s worth noting that it operates like a seasoned messenger app. All the information is laid out clearly, the chat itself operates perfectly with perfect timeline synchronization, which to me is important. Basically if your phone is offline, the goTenna device itself will “hold” the message and deliver it after you link up. This is important with communications of a serious nature when you need chronological accountability. With off grid devices that have the potential for straying into dead zones with no other device in range – this is doubly important.
Another noteworthy thought is that whilst goTenna is supposed to be just for phones, I had no issues hooking it up with my Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 tablet. That said, it didn’t play nice with my Chromebook (which has Play Store support). Something to think about.
Other Miscellaneous Thoughts
If you grab a goTenna, it will come in a pair. I strongly recommend labelling them so you do not accidentally walk out with the wrong device. I can imagine this will be especially important in situations where many people are using this platform – aid groups or remote communities come to mind.
In terms of what to do with it, as I mentioned in my review of the original goTenna, I basically just attach it and ignore it. As long as I am near’ish my bag, it will sync up with my phone and the battery life is both long enough and quick enough to charge that I never really bother to remove it. A lot of people had issues with carrying “another device” and seem to hold that bias against the goTenna, but honestly folks, my Gen 1. Antenna never left my backpack. If I was going somewhere I would charge it up on the go using a portable power bank, and other than that it just existed.
If you are going to buy this device, think of it not as something you use, but rather something you attach and forget. Its best feature is that it’s almost seamlessly intuitive to the point that I promise you will forget that it’s there until you actually use it or need to charge it.
Besides the mesh feature, which I will get a bit more into shortly, the other new quirk is the introduction of goTenna Plus. You get a 30 day free trial when you first activate your goTenna, and whilst it’s situationally awesome, it’s definitely not required. The annual cost is 10 bucks, though truth be told, it’s more of an “extra” rather than a must. Mesh and your device will work 100% the same with or without goTenna Plus, but the difference is that Plus offers the ability to relay SMS messages to another goTenna device who may have reception and which will then forward it to the desired recipient. The other notable feature is the location option that is default within the goTenna app (the ability to send people your coordinates with a pretty map attached) now comes with a detailed topographic overlay as you can see below.
They look nice, offer useful information for those of you who may want to hike through questionable terrain with other users, but whether its worth $10 a year is up to your own needs. As I said, it’s purely optional, and I can see it being unnecessary for most users.
The Mesh Network’s Anti-Censorship & Emergency Use Potential
The real game changer folks and the reason I am so excited is the community aspect of mesh networking. The goTenna Mesh works as a relay station the moment you switch it on – no configuration required. The more of these devices their are, the more powerful the network becomes. iMeshYou.com is a dynamic map for goTenna Mesh devices. You can register your goTenna to show people areas of coverage and as you can see below, the saturation is pretty damn impressive – especially in the States.
Obviously, I registered my own relay station. So if you are ever in South Dorset (UK) feel free to ping me. 😉 This decentralized, government and corporation resistant network takes the original goTenna “shout” feature that I was so excited about and makes it an unbelievable tool against censorship, natural disasters, and potential boredom on a Tuesday night. Like minded people who appreciate the benefits of off-grid communication: preppers, nerds, and moms who want to keep in touch with their kids (no matter what!) are able to communicate beyond the hard set limitations of a single UHF antenna. The potential is crazy and in times of duress this platform could literally save lives. The ability to reach out and ask, “What’s up?” regardless of the traditional grid being up is frankly incredible, and I really hope my own country adopts this mentality like so many of you in the States have.
Let me give you an example. A few months ago a fire broke out on the beach cliff top about 5 minutes from my home. Elise and I could see quite a bit of ash floating around in the air and had no idea what was going on. Before rushing outside to check things out ourselves, Elise hopped on the net, and not finding anything in the news, dove on to Twitter to see if those in the area were Tweeting about anything that could explain the situation. She did learn about the fire this way, but only after some digging. If a situation like this happened where there were less people around, it would have been impossible for us to figure out what happened. Imagine a forest fire starting out and you being one of the first to see it – if you have a goTenna Mesh, even with no phone reception, you’d be able to use the device to send out a warning on a public channel, so those around would be in-the-loop and could even notify local authorities to get that fire out before you even get to your car to drive over to a spot with better reception.
A decentralized grid network means super communication between communities during times of disasters or even for neighbourhood watch purposes. Frankly, the applications are amazing to think about, and when goTenna told me to check out iMeshYou.com, I was (cards on the table here) pessimistic. I expected maybe a few dozen devices spread sporadically in N.Y. and nowhere else, really, but the map below really blew my mind. This is a new platform and already adoption is impressive. If the goTenna Mesh actually takes off, I can see it changing the way people deal with problems within communities completely. The visual element (you can zoom in on the map to get to street level) gives you a sense of being able to tap into your local community, and not, as so many of us feel, being estranged and cut off from it while being only tapped in to the larger world when we connect through phones and online. There is a guy (or gal) with a goTenna Mesh just 4 miles from my home. I was shocked and started musing about who he/she was and if I could reach out to them. If we had someone between us with a goTenna Mesh, I would be able to ask him whether it was windy outside or if zombies have shown up at his door.
This is the real crux of this platform – its applications for broad use rather than just a cooler version of a simple walkie-talkie. Talking about the goTenna Mesh, it’s silly to just focus on 2 people being able to share messages and their location with one another when hiking. Big picture here – the benefits of mesh networking make this device so much more than the original goTenna. Not just for us city-dwellers and new-tech lovers, but when it comes to practical applications for people who live in villages without grids, or places struck by disasters. It’s hard to set up a comm center when a hurricane strikes, but it’s much easier if the comm center is attached to every individual, and happens to be weather-proof too.
My grandmother lives just out of my reach if we both use the goTenna Mesh (1.3 miles from me). The range is of course not the issue, but the insane amount of concrete between us. If there was even just one person between us with a goTenna Mesh, she would probably be completely reachable. The security I would feel knowing that she would always be able to reach me if she needed to cannot be understated. When the power cut out for us in Canada for 1 week in December, many elderly people had a rough time. They didn’t have any way of getting help or telling people if they were fine or needed something. I saw my neighbour knocking door to door to check in on the ones he knew on our street, but not everyone has great neighbours. This sort of situation happens more often than we like to think about, and this is what the goTenna Mesh (in my mind) was made for.
Yes, it’s useful for hikers and all sorts of other people if they get separated during a planned trip, but even for urban areas, if enough people set up relay stations (it’s as easy as turning the device on and keeping it charged – no need to have them paired to a phone), then no one would be at the mercy of isolation.
Reviewing this tech is pretty difficult. Some will get it, many others won’t.
I am not reviewing a device when I review the goTenna Mesh, but rather, a platform that carries within it an ideology in a lil’ slab of rubber and aluminium. To talk about goTenna Mesh, you have to talk about potential and the real world applications such a device has the potential to offer. Many of my readers will understand why independence matters, why a lack of censorship matters, and why it’s important to be able to communicate no matter where you happen to be.
To me, it’s important to think about independence from corporate networks in pragmatic terms. If you want a lack of censorship, to enforce your right to privacy, there have to be real world alternatives to crippling control from communication establishment like AT&T, Comcast, or even Facebook. Many of us have wished for an out for a long time, and now it feels it’s been delivered to us, albeit in sort of strange packaging. It’d be a deplorable thing to complain about censorship or control, and yet ignore emerging technology designed to circumvent it (intentionally or not).
And on that note, I will leave you to formulate your own thoughts on this device. Obviously, it’s something I feel very strongly about. As always, I am really interested in your thoughts, what case scenarios you could see the goTenna Mesh being useful in, and if you see the potential applications it has for emergency and anti-censorship being something of a game changer.