As noted in our Beartooth review, we spend a lot of time visiting areas that don’t have much in the way of cell service, so we’ve often found a use for off grid communications systems for personal communications. For years we’ve used walkie talkies (in the FRS/GMRS frequencies ) for voice communications when backing the RV or talking from car to RV when we’re driving separately. We’ve also used them sometimes when hiking or at various shows when cellphone towers are overloaded.
But we’ve also felt that there’s a need for something less than a walkie talkie as well. Something more discrete and lighter. We’d like something that can also send location information, which our walkie talkies can’t, at least not without digging out the GPS and passing lat/long from one person to another by voice.
Enter goTenna Mesh, the latest product from goTenna. Their first foray into the smartphone connected off grid communications market was the original goTenna, which began shipping in late 2015. Their latest consumer offering ( they also have goTenna Pro, a $500/each device targeted at government and commercial use, and requiring an FCC license ) is smaller than their original, uses UHF rather than VHF and can mesh network. That’s the ability of a device to relay a message through one or more “hops”, extending range.
This can help fix one of the big issues with these kind of off grid systems – they don’t have a very long range, at least not by what we’ve grown accustomed to with cellphones talking to high-powered towers. The problem is that whatever device you’re using for this has to have sold enough that there’s a good chance that someone else with a powered up, compatible device is out there to help transfer your message and for now, each of the devices that’s available in or coming to market uses its own protocols, so they’re not compatible with each other.
What is it?
GoTenna Mesh is a small device, about 4″ high, an inch across and a little less than an inch thick. It weighs 1.7 oz and has a flexible silicone strap that allows it to be attached to packs or clothing. It charges with USB in about two hours and has an advertised battery life of about 24 hours, though battery life is affected by the number of messages it processes. Transmitting takes more power.
Paired to a smartphone or tablet through bluetooth, goTenna uses an app as its interface. Once you have another goTenna user loaded as a contact, you can send and receive something like text messages ( can include location info) if they’re within range, which is advertised as .5 miles in dense urban areas to 4 miles or more in open environments, like desert or water. There are a lot of variables to range though, as goTenna Mesh’s FAQ notes:
Don’t be surprised if you get a lot less or a lot more than this — it’s quite common to get only a few blocks in very dense urban areas and the current ground-to-peak point-to-point range record for goTenna Mesh is 10 miles. (A skydiver set the open-air range point-to-point record: 26 miles!
GoTenna Mesh’s big feature ( it’s in the name…) is the ability to mesh network between devices. This is the ability of one of the Mesh devices to “forward” a message from one goTenna Mesh to another, extending their range.
Example: Three people have goTenna Mesh devices. Person 1 can reach person 2, but person 3 is out of their range, but still in range of person 2. Person 1 can still send a message to person 3 without any extra effort on their part because the goTenna Mesh of person 2 will relay the message. This message is encrypted and only person 1 and 3 can read it, person 2’s goTenna Mesh can forward the message, but is unable to read it unless they’re included as a recipient.
GoTenna Mesh is capable of passing a message through three hops on the way from the message originator to the recipient, so at a mile or more per hop, this could add up to quite a distance. GoTenna Mesh units that are not paired with phones are still capable of forwarding messages and can be powered with USB to stay powered on beyond the capacity of the internal battery.
The original goTenna was somewhat larger than this version, in part because it used a different radio frequency. Since they’re not on the same frequencies, the original goTenna and the goTenna mesh cannot talk to each other. If you own the original, you’ll need to either buy more of those or switch over to the newer mesh version to expand your set.
What’s in the box
Inside the box there are two goTenna Mesh units with different colored straps, two short USB charge cables and a goTenna Mesh sticker. There are quick start instructions on the lid and a thank you letter to goTenna’s crowd funding backers.
I purchased four goTenna units, with the intention of having the option to use one or two of them as repeating nodes to extend the range of the other two units. When you order four goTenna units, you get two boxes of two units, but in four different strap colors – they’re either blue/green or orange/purple. While the goTenna unit that was disassembled in their FCC testing ( check it out to see inside the case ) had a black strap, only the four colors are shown in all of their web site and if you choose the 8 pack when purchasing, two of each color are shown in the product images.
GoTenna pricing is $179/two, $329/four and $579/eight and are currently shipping to the US and Canada.
The goTenna device
The goTenna Mesh device itself is tiny and light. The rubber strap snaps onto the device with a loop on the top and a flat section on the back, which will allow you to attach it to a line, a backpack strap, on a belt or on a military style MOLLE loops.
On the front of the goTenna Mesh is a status light that shows red when charging and flashes white when unpaired or when sending/receiving/passing along a message. On the side of the unit is a micro USB charge port with a rubber cover, above that is a small power button. Charging the goTenna Mesh from empty to full takes about 2 hours and battery life is listed as 24 hours or so, though the number of messages it processes can affect that. In our testing, we easily got a full day’s use out of them ( 14 hours ) and run-down testing showed about 30 or so hours of battery life for us. This is about as much as a smartphone, so if you’re charging the smartphone you can charge the goTenna as well.
One bug we found was that charging happened in about two hours, but if the device was on, charging would stop once charged, yet the device continued to draw power. If the battery dips low enough while the goTenna is on, the charging will restart, but a few times I’ve pulled what I thought was a charged goTenna off the USB only to find it’s only about 80% charged. This doesn’t occur when the goTenna is off when charged.
GoTenna Mesh is advertised as water-resistant and dust-tight, their FAQ says it will survive rain, possibly a quick drop into water and is protected against dust. However, it has no IP rating, which is the standard for dust and water ingress into products, so I’d take this with a grain of salt, though the only port ( USB charge ) is protected pretty well with a rubber-like cover.
The goTenna App
To use the goTenna Mesh, you first need to download the companion app on your smartphone or tablet, so before you head into the boonies, get everything set up first – you must have Internet connectivity to get set up, plus be able to receive a text message . The app is available for both Android and iOS devices. We used it with both, but mostly Android.
GoTenna has updated their app and the device firmware at least twice while I did my testing -about a month and a half. They seem to be keeping up with updates pretty frequently. New features ( like Relay Mode – allows you to easily set a goTenna to be a stand-alone message relay node) have appeared, as well as changes to the interface that are not all reflected in my screen captures. Stability of the app and the connection to the goTenna seemed to improve noticeably with one or more of the updates. Originally, I found disconnects from the goTenna to be pretty frequent, but after the first updates I found it to be much more stable, rarely disconnecting unless the phone and the goTenna were separated. If this occurred, the goTenna did not always automatically reconnect, sometimes I needed to restart bluetooth on my phone.
The firmware updates are kind of a pain in the butt since they take about a half hour to complete. There is no using the goTenna during this process, and if you have a goTenna you’re using for headless mesh nodes, you’ll have to go through this process for each one. goTenna has promised more mesh hops in the future, so keeping up with the updates is probably pretty important. Speeding up this process would be a welcome change since there’s no obvious way to stop it once it starts without turning off the goTenna and halting the app. Turning it off in the middle of an update risks bricking the device. Twice we’ve pulled our goTenna devices out to use them, only to have firmware updates stop or delay our use of them by a half hour or more.
Once you have the app on your phone, you have to pair it with the goTenna device. To turn the goTenna on, press the button on the side for a couple of seconds. The light on the front will come on and surge ( white ) slowly a time or two while it starts up, then flash faster as it waits to pair or connect with the phone. Once connected, the goTenna does not light up at all, unless it’s receiving or forwarding a message, is disconnected/unpaired or charing.
Because it’s a Bluetooth LE device, the pairing happens in the app, not in the phones’ bluetooth settings. The first time you pair the device, the goTenna app walks you through the process, asking for permission to use location to set the frequency and power output for the radio in the goTenna device since some countries require different frequency and power output limits than the USA. Then the device asks you whether you have the original goTenna or the Mesh, since the same software is used for both. for your phone number, which is what you’ll use as a “GID” ( goTenna ID? It’s not specified anywhere that I can find ), though before you can use it, you have to get a verification text to prove it’s your phone number. If you don’t want to use a phone number ( or are using a tablet or something without a phone number ) you can use a somewhat longer generated GID without verification.
Once paired with the device, you’re presented with main goTenna app screen. This shows links to go to the Chats screen, your contacts list, a way to set your goTenna to “Relay Mode”, where it will use a random GID and operate without your phone to relay mesh network messages. This screen also shows your GID ( the numbers are oddly spaced and formatted, but that’s my phone number ) and your goTenna Plus subscription status.
This shows the chats ( there are two ongoing “conversations”, one with my tablet for testing and one with my lovely wife ) as well as shouts and emergency conversations. Tap the word “goTenna” in the upper left corner to go back to the main menu, the map icon in the upper right to go to the mapping screen. Click on the blue circle to start a new chat.
Regular 1 to 1 chats are from one person to just one other person and have a confirmation that they’ve actually sent and been received. If they are not confirmed, you can tap them to resend – you don’t have to retype the message. Below is a chat session with a failed message receipt ( you can tell by the red circle with an exclamation point – the other goTenna was off on purpose ) but a tap on the message brings up the option to resend.
Mesh networking is handled without any input from a user. If your message uses multiple hops on its way to the recipient, it will be noted under the successful message, with a note that tells you how many hops it required to get to its destination.
Chats can also go to groups of up to 10 people. Normally, there are no confirmations with this type of chat, but if you’re a Plus subscriber, you can get confirmations on groups of up to 6 recipients. Group chats can mesh network.
Shouts are similar to group chats, but they go out to any goTenna users in range, even if they’re not in your contact list or a group list. This is a good way to share contact information with several other folks at once before they’re in your contact list. Shouts can be turned off, so if you’re in an area with lots of other goTenna users who abuse this, it’s possible to silence them.
Emergency chats are similar to shouts, but they cannot be turned off and they relay like group chats. This seems like it could be easily abused, but I haven’t seen it happen yet with our goTenna use.
In our testing, chat messaging worked well up to the range of the device ( or farther, with meshing…) but messages usually take 10 seconds to go through and get a confirmation, sometimes up to 30 seconds if it takes two tries or if there’s no confirmation. Texting with goTenna is slower than normal SMS texting, even in the best circumstances.
GoTenna does not have a GPS built into the device, so it relies on the app on your phone to handle location tasks. When composing a text message, you click on the crosshairs to the left of the text creation blank and get the options of:
- requesting another’s location – This sends the other use a message requesting their location. If they’ve got “auto accept location requests” on for you, their goTenna app will automatically reply with their location if their phone is connected. If the phone isn’t connected, the goTenna will store the message and you’ll get a delivery confirmation, but no location data is forthcoming.
- Auto Accept Location Requests – This turns on “auto accept location requests” for the person you’re chatting with. You can also do this in contacts.
- Attach a Pin – This lets you send any saved pins from the map. Note – the pin must already be saved.
- Attach my location
- Start location tethering – This starts regularly transmitting your location to the other person in the chat every (1,5 or 10 ) minutes for ( 1-10 ) hours. This feature only works if you’re a Plus member with a current subscription.
Other user locations and pins can be viewed on maps that are downloadable to the app on a state-by-state basis, or entire countries if you’re not in North America.
Sending locations generally works pretty well, though there are few things I’d like to see improved with the mapping. The first is the street maps that are the defaults. This is a device generally marketed to off-grid locations and outdoorsy people, like hikers, yet the only maps that are available without a Plus subscription are street level maps that have almost no no natural features other than lakes, rivers and canals. If you’re on a hike and away from roads or water features, the map will show nothing. Which means that while the goTenna mapping system may technically tell you where someone is, other than how far away they are and vaguely what direction ( guessed from the compass needle ) it may not be of much assistance in helping you find them.
Below on the left is an example of the street map, showing my location- It’s got some details because there’s water and a few streets. Next to it is the street map version of about a 10 mile wide section of desert north of where I am. Yeah, it’s kind of flat and there aren’t a lot of roads, but there is NOTHING on the map. The third image ( farthest right ) is what the map looks like if you’re paying for goTenna Plus topographic maps ( next section in the review ), but even that should be more detailed.
Probably the most frustrating part of how goTenna handles locations is that if you look at the details of a person’s location, you can see their distance and their latitude and longitude. But you can’t do anything with that information. There is no way to either click on the lat/long to “share” it to another application or even just copy it to paste into a real topo mapping application or into some mapping app that can give real, turn-by-turn directions. The “Share” that is in the menu just sends the location as a pin attached to a text. GoTenna should fix this ASAP.
All in all the location features feel like they were developed by someone who never actually navigated to a point before, and definitely don’t work as seamlessly as chats.
When you first set up the goTenna, you’re offered a trial ( 30 day ) subscription to goTenna Plus. After the trial subscription is up, the introductory price is $9.99/year per user, but the long term pricing is set at $29/yr at some point in the future. This adds the ability to use Topographic maps in the goTenna app, forward messages to users out of range via SMS, do location tethering and a few other small things.
The Topo maps are downloadable like the street maps, so you can load them into your phone for when you’re offline, but the downloadable area is pretty small – it’s unlikely you will be talking to another user who is beyond the range of a full map download, but you could easily travel outside of the downloadable area in just a few minutes in a car. Looking at the maximum download square size on Google Earth, I’m guessing it’s about 40 miles on a side. You can download up to four maps to keep in the map “library”, so it’s possible to cover a larger area with several downloads.
The maps are also what I would call cleaned up, stylized representations of freely available topo maps. In my opinion, they’re missing a lot of features that a topo map should have, like altitude indications, dirt roads, buildings, etc. Here’s a screen capture of a location in the goTenna Topo map ( left ), along with one from a real mapping app ( right – BackCountry Navigator Pro – my choice for topo mapping). See the difference?
Location tethering, group chat delivery confirmation and saving tracks are also Plus features. With location tethering, you can set your app to send someone ( 1 to 1 only ) your location every few ( 1, 5 or 10 ) minutes for the next ( 1-10 ) hours.
Group chat confirmation gets you confirmations on group chats ( up to 6 recipients ) like you do on 1 to 1 chats. What’s frustrating about this is that these three features don’t require connection to the goTenna cloud to accomplish. Rather, all of that happens in the app and the goTenna device, or at least could. So, to my way of thinking, if you’re not paying the subscription, they’re going to downgrade the features of your device and app. This feels like extortion to me and is a lousy way to do business.
SMS forwarding is a little more unusual and a little more confusing. If a user has an Internet connection, goTenna can send messages via the Internet and SMS. From the goTenna FAQ –
SMS Network Relay enables users to send messages to other users that are not within range by utilizing another user’s internet connection to send out messages. Messages sent out via SMS Network Relay will show confirmation with a blue check mark instead of the normal green mark and will appear in the user’s text messaging application.
No, I don’t completely understand it either, though I’m looking for a better explanation and will update this when I find one.
Overall, I think that goTenna isn’t offering a lot here, even for $10/year ( soon to be $29/year ). This wouldn’t be so bad if it were for a set of goTenna devices, but it’s for a single device. So a family of 6 that buys goTenna devices for everyone ( $508 ) will need to spend $60/year to have them all auto-send location information, soon to go up to $174/year. GoTenna can do better by their customers. Better maps and family-rate pricing would be a good start, along with not disabling goTenna features if you decline their offer.
Imeshyou , the SDK and the goTenna Community
To help show users ( and potential users ) that there are others out there, goTenna has a website called imeshyou.com dedicated to mapping out the rough locations where goTenna users are using their products, since having other goTenna users in the area makes your goTenna devices work better. Users that have stationary goTenna Mesh devices that are on 24/7/365 to expand the network are also listed there. The map on the left shows all goTenna users that have registered, the one on the right shows stationary, always-on nodes. There aren’t a lot of always on nodes, but it’s interesting to see and I expect to find more on there in the future.
The imeshyou.com site also has a goTenna community that’s both for user support and for goTenna based projects and ideas that folks have. One of my favorites is “Project MOAN – the Mother of All Nodes”, where a user has opened the case of their goTenna and added a larger external antenna, making their goTenna relay messages over a wider area.
There’s also a Software Development Kit ( SDK ) to allow users to connect to the goTenna Mesh devices to send their own data over the network in 256 bit chunks. This is, admittedly, not a lot of data and a pretty slow data transfer rate, but for folks trying to remotely monitor a sensor or control some device digitally over a long distance that a single point-to-point system can’t manage, it’s pretty cool.
Props to goTenna for supporting these forums and other uses of their product.
Line of Sight testing
Our test site was along I70, north of Moab, UT. One of our testing team sat at a rest stop along I70 atop a roughly 100′ hill with a clear view of the road for a little over 6 miles. To try to force the units to mesh, we brought all four of the goTenna Mesh units we had. The tester in the car had one goTenna Mesh ( let’s call this GM1) under the passenger seat where it was hoped the metal in the car and the seat would restrict the signal and limit its ability to transmit to the stationary location. On the back of the car in a mesh bag was another goTenna Mesh unit ( GM2 ) that had a clear LOS ( line of sight ) view back to the stationary location ( on the left side of the Yellow line in the map below ).
At the rest stop, the other tester put an unpaired but powered on goTenna Mesh ( GM3 ) out where it had a good view, but placed the other one ( GM4 ) behind a concrete wall where it could be reached by Bluetooth from its paired phone, but the long range signal would be degraded.
The idea behind this was that when GM1 and GM4 ( the ones with signal obstructions ) lost the ability to directly communicate, if the mesh networking worked they would be forced to use GM3 and GM2 to deliver their messages.
The driver would stop every mile or so and pull off where it was safe to test how the goTenna Mesh worked. We kept in touch with Motorola GMRS radios both to stay in communcations and to compare range with the goTenna devices. We also tested the Beartooth radios – we’ve already posted a review of that product, but we’ll be doing a head-to-head comparison of both in the near future.
1 mile: No issues. No meshing needed.
2 miles: No issues. No meshing needed.
3 miles: The goTenna under the seat (GM1 ) was unable to reach the one behind the wall directly (GM4), though messages continued to get through via mesh ( 1 hop ).
4 miles: The goTenna Mesh devices with degraded signals ( GM1 and GM4 ) are unable to communicate over this distance, but their messages still go through with mesh ( 2+ hops ).
5 miles: Messages to degraded devices require mesh hops, the other two talk the whole 5 miles.
6.3 miles: Last test. The first attempt to get a message through fails with a “Message Unconfirmed”, but a goes through with a receipt on a retry. This was the only failure we experienced with goTenna in the entire test, other than the units with deliberately degraded units, and those were still able to communicate via mesh.
I also headed into the town of Moab, UT for some testing in a city environment. Moab is a town of about 5,000 and is a very popular destination for off-road enthusiasts and mountain bikers. Surrounded by beauty, it’s just a few minutes from Arches and Canyonlands national parks, so it’s a major tourist destination. The downtown is mostly one and two story businesses along Main St. that turns mostly to residential areas just a block off the main drag.
I parked a little over a block off Main St. and hung one goTenna Mesh over the rear view mirror, paired to a tablet I left in the car. I put the other one in a mesh pocket in the back of my backpack and walked off, testing the link between the devices about every tenth of a mile.
I was testing solo, so I did not compare to GMRS walkie talkies in this test, though I did test Beartooth at the same time and will be giving those results in another article.
Note: Since each message gets a “receipt”, I knew if there was two-way communications.
Messages and location worked reliably up to about .7 miles, where I had several messages fail to get through, even after retrying them. I had one more go through at .8 miles, but that was the furthest I could successfully get a message through.
Returning to the car ( with the goTenna now behind me and my body between it and the other one) I got a text message through at .75 miles. On the way back, I ducked into several stores to try to send messages from inside a building. I was unable to send at .5 miles, but was able to get a message through at .4 and closer from indoors.
In this sort of small town environment ( no large buildings, a fair amount of open space ) it seems that range is roughly less than a mile. With one or more of the goTenna devices inside a building, a range of less than a half a mile is likely.
Other notes and issues
We had an example of how the environment in which you use a radio device can positively affect the range. In some preliminary testing, we got text and location messages through at a distance of 7.5 miles, with no line of sight and some small hills in between the two units. There was a thousand feet or so cliff behind one of the units which I believe heavily influenced this successful test by reflecting the radio signals, since driving up the road a mile closer to the receiving goTenna but away from the cliff rendered the two devices unable to communicate again. Other devices on hand ( both GMRS and Beartooth ) experienced the same range abnormalities.
The takeaway is that range is very dependent on the geography and buildings between two units.
GoTenna claims to have enough internal memory for several hundred messages. Curiously, messages are held in non-volatile memory, so if your phone wasn’t connected to a goTenna when a message arrives, it’ll wait for you until you reconnect, even if the goTenna is turned off. We’ve turned on a goTenna sometimes a week after the last time we’ve used it and had a message pop up when the paired phone reconnects. GoTenna timestamps the messages, but there’s no date stamp, so old messages look just like fresh ones. This would be a welcome feature as well.
GoTenna worked pretty well for us. Range was as promised, the app worked pretty well and messages got through almost all of the time.With a clear line of sight, ranges of 5+ miles are easily possible. Without a clear line of sight, a single-hop range of significantly less than half a mile is also a possibility. This is right in line with what goTenna ( in their FAQ and elsewhere ) promises for range. Mesh networking worked as advertised and could extend the range of communications 2-3x, if there were more devices in between. When they did not, the app let us know and made resending easy. Range in town is pretty limited, but most folks will have cell phone access in a city or town, so that’s less of an issue. Limited range in a deserted wooded area would be a larger issue.
The Bottom Line
GoTenna is a well thought out and executed product with a mostly decent app and what seems to be good ongoing support, with the app and firmware updated regularly. It delivers on its promises, but in some places ( cities, heavily wooded areas ) it’s still not a lot of range, about as far as you would get in 10-15 minutes of walking or less. Still, I think that’s just physics at work. More folks out there using them would be nice, since the whole network would expand with more nodes for forwarding messages. It wouldn’t take more than a few other folks using goTenna in an area like a popular hiking trail to make these very capable.
It’s still a fairly new product, but improvements are still coming and more are promised. We’d like to see some sort of control over the LED in the app ( I’d like it to pulse very softly when on and connected ), dates listed on messages that are more than 24 hours old, as well as the ability to easily export the location of another person or point to another, more capable mapping program. They really should improve the maps as well.
I’m disappointed in goTenna Plus – I’m of the opinion that features that don’t require a connection to the goTenna servers should not require an additional annual charge, even if it is a small one. The topo maps are an improvement on the base street maps, but they’re still far from being as good as freely downloadable ones. The features Plus adds aren’t worth the money in my opinion, particularly if you’ve got a large group using goTenna.
We’ve used the goTenna some places, like in a park that’s got poor cell coverage, or when my cellphone had issues with sending SMS, and have found them useful and convenient. Yet, at least for us, they’re not going to replace two way radios for a lot of our applications. We just did a two day off-road trip into the AZ desert and used GMRS radios exclusively, in part because they could transmit voice and we could easily use them while driving.
However, where their quirks fit with the use, we like goTenna and are going to keep using them. We’ve got one powered up 24/7 in the front window of our RV as a mesh node to extend the range of the other goTenna devices that we use, as well as to extend coverage for others in the area. Jeanette and I have cellphones on different networks ( AT&T and VZW ) so it’s not unusual for one of us to have cell service but the other to not. In those situations, we often use goTenna to keep in touch when around the RV, like when we’re walking our cats.
If you’re looking for a short-range, smartphone connected, text messaging communications device, goTenna might well be for you. They perform as advertised and I would expect them to get better as the app improves and firmware updates bring more features. In emails, goTenna has told me that the capability of more hops is in the works, but they want to make sure the product works well as it is first. I’m giving them a “buy”.
Note: I’ll be completing a comparison review of goTenna vs. Beartooth, which will be shorter, simpler and directly compare the features of the two devices to each other. After that, the next up in the spotlight is Sonnet. These mesh networking devices promise to operate similarly to goTenna and Beartooth, but even more features and up to 16 hops ( goTenna currently does just 3, Beartooth has yet to implement mesh networking ) and the ability to send many different kinds of files, including voice messages, images and even share an Internet connection. Currently crowdsourced, I’m set to get three of them shortly after they start shipping in early 2018.