What exactly is the goTenna Mesh (Mesh), their website says:
“Pair to your phone and create your own signal. goTenna Mesh lets you send texts and GPS locations, no service required. Revolutionary mesh networking privately and automatically relays messages through other devices to extend beyond point-to-point range; the bigger your network, the stronger your communications.”
When I first heard about the Mesh, my initial thoughts were this was a device that would allow me to get text messages out to the world when I didn’t have any cell service. It was my understanding that when my cell phone did not have service, the Mesh would look for another nearby Mesh and send my message through its connected host. If it was not able to do so, then that Mesh would look for another Mesh nearby and try its host, and so on until my message was sent. While this is somewhat true, I now understand that there are some huge caveats to the successful delivery of my message.
What exactly is the Mesh and what does it do?
In a nutshell, it is a digital communicator that utilizes the 9xx MHz radio frequencies to send digital text messages when paired via Bluetooth to your cell phone and accompanying app. A Mesh can send texts back and forth to other Mesh devices within range without using cell service. It can also send your location coordinates to other devices that you have approved (through the app) so that they can see where you are, and in turn, you can see where others are on the map in the goTenna App.
The way it communicates is very similar to the FRS/GMRS Walkie-Talkie handheld voice radios (Family Radios). The difference is FRS radios cannot send your location, and if you’re out of range, you’re out of range. With the Mesh, if you’re out of range of the person your trying to communicate with, but there is another Mesh (even someone you don’t know) between the two of you, and within range of both of you, it will receive your message and relay it to the person you are trying to communicate with. Thus the term “Mesh Network.” The more active devices available and in range, the more extended your reach. It will hop up to six devices to try to reach its destination. Crazy right, but wait, there is more!
If your message can’t reach its destination, you will get a “Delivery unconfirmed” message with an “i” in the middle of an orange circle. Clicking this icon will bring up an option to send using goTenna’s SMS Network Relay. It does this by locating a Mesh who’s host has cell service, sends your message to the goTenna Servers which will then send your message to its intended recipient as a “regular” SMS Text Message. This process also works if you send a message to a contact in your app that does not have a Mesh device, even if you don’t have cell service. As long as the recipient has cell service, they will receive the message as a standard text.
Now that “process” is also used if you select to send an “Emergency Beacon” or “Emergency Chat.” When activated, your unique message (created in the app’s settings) will transmit along with your location to all Meshes in range. This message will always relay up to 6 hops to ensure it’s range is as far as possible and display on every Mesh it comes in contact with. The beacon will broadcast until you deactivate it, or, you’re Mesh runs out of battery, whichever comes first. These messages do not have read receipts available as there’s no specific recipient, it’s meant to be received by anyone; thus an exact delivery confirmation cannot be made. Though, you would imagine, that a receiving user would react accordingly.
Lastly, there are Shout Messages. Shout messages are intended as a friendly local broadcast. Thus, shouts are received by other Mesh users in range, but they do not hop.
Now, that is what it is and what it does. I bet your head is spinning right about now with all the cool things you can do with these devices. However, as with anything, I need to caveat the above statements with the Mesh’s limitations, restrictions and some…well, issues that came up during testing.
Let’s get into the “Real-World” use of the Mesh, the App, and their practical applications. First, I do like the Mesh and the purposed applications as well as the potential these have. Even as they are, I like them a lot. But you have to completely understand their limitations so that you don’t have unrealistic expectations – especially in an emergency.
Range: goTenna states that you can expect to get up to 4 miles. In practice, I was only able to get a max of 0.6miles. I took the Meshes on a 25-mile kayak camping trip on a very remote stretch of the Peace River here in Central Florida. There were many times that Brett and I intentionally separated and using a Garmin GPS to locate stretches of the river that was as straight as a river could be to test communications, Brett would hold back or head out front and we would text until messages were no longer delivered. Florida is flat, we were on the water, and the banks were mostly low, lots of open meadows and treed forests plastered on rolling hills ranging 10-20 ft. The Pace River is one of the few remote off-grid areas in and around Central Florida and cell service was limited at best but mostly nonexistent. I did get out and try on a hill above the water, but that didn’t help all that much.
Mesh Networking: “Link users in your area, relay and send messages farther while keeping them private.” The only way this is achievable is if there are other available Meshes within range. goTenna provides an online map of other Meshers, and you can zoom into your area and see who’s around, but there are three issues with this; a) It is optional and a manual process to add your Mesh to the map. b) this is a static view of the Mesh and does not update live when the Mesh moves. c) of those that you can see, there no way to know if the Mesh is on and accepting message to relay. The goTenna App Map will only show devices in your own personal network, not anyone else close by. The minimum you can buy is two, but you can also get a set of 4 or even 8 devices for a large group. Again, all you will see on the App Map is your group and only if they’re on and connected via Bluetooth to a host cellphone.
I thought we could hop from device to device and technically you can as long as there are available devices within range. But is this really a practical expectation – I don’t think so and here is why. The only time a Mesh is functional is if when you don’t have cell service (off-grid), are in a group where you may intentionally or unintentionally get separated, your Meshes are charged and turned on. That covers you and your peeps. But to “hop” outside of your group, you have to have another group (2 or more) in the same situation with active Meshes and in range (1/2 to 1 mile) of your group. Here in the US, I don’t see that happening all that much if ever, so you’ll want to make sure that you have enough devices in your group to cover your needs and not rely on the ability to relay through someone else’s device.
Emergency Communications: This is a tough one for me as I may be more critical than most. As an ex-Search & Rescue Volunteer, I have seen what can happen in situations where there was no way to contact someone in an emergency. It usually is not good! Even recently I was on a day kayak paddle, and I came upon a small family with the husband seizing from dehydration. We were 20 miles from any kind of services!
With that said, would I consider a Mesh as my only means of emergency communications? No! Would I consider a Mesh as “any” means of emergency communications? No! It’s just that simple! Let’s look at my last trip. We are a group of five kayaking on the Peace River and we were all off-grid for most of the trip. I had a Mesh and Brett had the other – this is our “group.” Now, remember – unless the conditions as outlined above are met, we are the only active Meshes out there. I can all but guarantee that there was no one else to receive our Emergency Beacon! And if by chance the stars did align and there was someone or someones, we would never know unless they responded? Remember, we can’t see them on our map, and they can’t see us. Add in the fact that beacons don’t send receipt confirmations – we are as
blind, as and clueless as one could be! Knowing what you know now, would you want to be having a heart attack in the middle of nowhere and rely on the Mesh to get you help, nope!
I did ask goTenna about the ability to see other active devices within range, and I was given this:
“We really value user privacy, and we know more than a solid handful of users like to remain anonymous. That said, we don’t track the location of Mesh units and surface that information to users.”
Great, I appreciate that they are looking out for my privacy. However, when I open the app, why can’t there be a “counter” that says something like “5 active Meshes within range”? I don’t need to know their location, just that they are within range and active for relaying or emergencies. This would at least let me know I stand a chance of hitting another unit and possibly getting help. This would also not violate anyone’s privacy. As I mentioned, I don’t need their location, just a confirmation that someone is listening! But I suspect that this will never happen because it would likey validate my statement above that its unlikely anyone would be available anyway and that could be bad for business.
Another reason the Mesh should not be considered for your emergency needs is that it’s not waterproof. From goTenna when asked what its IPX rating was:
“No, but it’s definitely weatherproof and water-resistant. We’ve designed it to survive rainy excursions and to stand a good chance of survival if briefly dropped in water, but it’s definitely not designed to be submerged.”
All Emergency Communications equipment should be waterproof, there are just too many situations where this could get dropped in liquid and fail. Lastly, I noticed that when I hooked the Mesh to my pack and left it there for the day, it would periodically disconnect from the app, even if the app was open. I brought this up to goTenna, and the response was:
“This can happen when you have the goTenna App running in the background on iOS. iOS has a feature that kills apps running in the background for an extended period to save battery life. Thus, if you were leaving goTenna in the background, iOS would kill the app, and you’d observe the Bluetooth disconnect. When you re-activate the app, you’ll find that you reconnect automatically. Even if your smartphone has disconnected, your goTenna Mesh is still receiving messages. So, when you repair, those messages are delivered to the app. Even if you happen to experience this disconnect, you’d still receive the message you might have missed initially. “
In short, someone would have to continually check their iPhone to see if anyone in the group or an emergency message had been sent – kind of defeats the purpose if you ask me.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’ll be out on an excursion where you won’t have cell service and where you may intentionally or unintentionally get separated from others in your group, picking up a few of these could be useful for general communications, but that’s about it.
What I think should be changed or fixed?
- The App “needs” to show a count of ALL active Mesh devices within range
- It needs to be rated at least IPX7 for Waterproof
- They need to fix the issue with it disconnecting from the App on iOS devices
- They need to send Delivery Confirmations when a message does actually reach its intended recipient
- They need to make the SMS option more clear
Size & Weight10.0/10
What I liked
- Works great within the limited range
- Good battery for a day
- Does not need a host device to transmit
What I did not like
- Limited range
- Not waterproof
- Price is a bit steep
- Not good for most emergency situations
- Poor documentation