I just purchased a new electronic device. It has exactly the right combination of qualities that tickle both my Granola and my Shotgun. But first some background.
I’m not a tech guy. Not even close. My natural threshold for machinery of any kind cuts off somewhere in the 1930s. I have warm fuzzy feelings toward an Amish level of pragmatic simplicity involving hand cranks and weighted pulleys. A bicycle is my idea of the optimum mix of transportation functionality at a price point any twelve year old can manage – and it operates just fine on dirt roads with no fuel. Similarly, the design of my pressure canner hasn’t changed since Roosevelt was in the White House. If you can put food in a jar and boil water you can successfully preserve your own food in this indestructible appliance. So I can safely say I’m a late adopter to innovation. Keep that in mind.
Behold the goTenna. My friend Erik of Root Simple down in Los Angeles is a Ham radio enthusiast. While I slavishly mimic him and his wife in many ways (see this video I made with my friend Kirsten Dirksen) I never cottoned on to the home communications thing. Electronics? Government exams and licensing? Regulatory compliance? No. Not my thing. But this goTenna is very appealing. It’s a tiny two watt radio station that communicates directly with other units of its kind over medium distances. It’s Ham-esque at my personal baby step level.
This reviewer perfectly describes why goTenna hits all my buttons. I live deep inside the venn diagram he mentions where tree huggers keen on net neutrality overlap with red necks who fear Big Brother. I like the idea of a work-around that will still function even if larger infrastructure fails or becomes distasteful.
From a pragmatic perspective massive hyper complex systems are magnificent while they’re up and running. But they quickly become critical dependencies. When they fail, as they sometimes do, they evaporate just when you need them most. Ask the people of Puerto Rico how well their centralized infrastructure held up a year after a devastating hurricane. The CEO of goTenna Daniela Perdomo explains the origin of her New York based company in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. GoTenna doesn’t replace the internet or cell phone service. Instead, it provides an alternative for basic communications when the big stuff crashes.
The range of these devices varies with topography. In a perfectly flat landscape with no obstructions (a corn field in Nebraska – or across San Francisco Bay) it could reach about five miles. In hilly terrain or a city with lots of buildings it might be as little as half a mile. I live in the center of San Francisco which is seven miles wide. There are existing goTennas all around and they daisy chain encrypted text messages from one to another until the texts reach their intended destination. It’s possible to communicate across the city in this completely mobile ad hoc network – or MANET – without ever interacting with a cell tower or WiFi. And unlike established infrastructure that becomes slow or stops entirely when too many users pile on, the Mesh actually gets better the more people join in.
I already have a portable solar power pack to keep small devices charged during a power outage or while I’m away from civilization. It’s about the size of an iPad when it’s folded up – seen here next to my wallet for scale. This is plenty good enough to keep multiple devices charged if the electrical grid is ever down. This week a 3.5 earthquake across the bay in Berkeley jolted me out of bed just shy of 5 AM. You never know when these alternative devices might come in handy.
If the goTenna works as well as advertised in the coming months it may prove a gateway drug that inspires me to pursue a Ham radio in earnest. We’ll see. But at the moment it’s just not possible to apply for a license or take the exam due to the federal government shutdown that’s been dragging on for the past month now. That’s another kind of infrastructure that can and evidently does fail from time to time. I’d like the ability to opt out if need be.
There are other institutional intermediaries that increasingly have ever greater control over all our individual actions on the interwebs as well. Here’s Erik’s experience being “deplatformed” when the Los Angeles Bread Bakers group was labeled too controversial for someone’s taste. It’s hardly a radical organization, but opaque unresponsive bureaucracies tend to throw the baby out with the bath water. And there’s no recourse.
GoTenna isn’t a panacea. But it is an interesting work around I’m excited to experiment with for a while. If it performs well I’ll take the next step and install a permanent relay node to contribute to the robustness of the larger Mesh. I’ll keep you posted.