[Note: on 9/29/18, the title of this article was changed from “The Grassroots Emergency Alert Network” to “The Grassroots Emergency Communications Network”]
Calling it a “people-powered, bottoms-up, approach,” for creating a wireless emergency alert network, goTenna co-founder and CEO, Daniela Perdomo, describes how their latest device allows anyone with a smartphone to create a node in an ad-hoc, wireless mesh network. The goTenna Mesh, is a battery-powered, capsule that uses unlicensed, UHF frequencies to allow the transmission of texts and GPS locations without the need for a working cellular network.
Like the Internet, data is routed from a smartphone via Bluetooth-LE to a goTenna Mesh unit through other goTenna Mesh units until it reaches the desired destination. This sort of hopping, where the signal is repeated at each node, allows transmission of data to be extended much further than would be possible in a point-to-point configuration (e.g. watch this earlier interview with goTenna co-founder Jorge Perdomo to see an example of a point-to-point approach for data transmission). Encryption of the data ensures privacy, as it passes through the various nodes of the network.
The goTenna website features different use-cases submitted by their customers, which include:
- Connecting hikers in remote areas and, in one instance, the connectivity helped one hiker receive medical attention
- Allowing a group of concertgoers to know the location of each other, which would have been impossible had they relied on the congested cellular and Wi-Fi networks
- As an investment in community to create an alternative network to traditional telecom infrastructure
One possible return on the investment in the alternative network scenario, described above, is during an emergency or disaster situation, such as a hurricane or earthquake, when wireless towers are knocked down and power is gone. It is the radio hardware which distinguishes goTenna from smartphone applications like Zello, which ultimately require some level of connectivity to a traditional wireless network.
Perdomo alludes to their pro version of their product as one that first responders can use for situational awareness (SA) and tactical command & control (C2), without being connected to a cellular network or even FirstNet. Features of a goTenna Pro mesh network include, live interactive mapping, one-to-one and group texting, personnel tracking and emergency beacon capability.
These 5-Watt, MIL-SPEC units use licensed UHF spectrum, operate for up to 40 hours on battery-power and are compact enough that they can be attached to small drones to provide a virtual antenna tower and low-cost enough that they can be dispersed in tunnels and other location where RF signals are severely attenuated. In turn, these ad-hoc networks can connect to terrestrial or satellite networks to provide linkage to the outside world.
Like the consumer-grade, goTenna Mesh, there is a Software Development Kit, that allows integration of their hardware directly into other applications; an example being the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK), developed and maintained by the Air Force Research Labs and SOCOM, which goTenna indicates is the leading situational awareness and C2 application for U.S. Special Forces.
It is the platform openness and the desire of the units to create an independent network that may be the most exciting thing about what goTenna has created. In addition to fostering new applications through the aforementioned SDKs, goTenna has a registry, imeshyou, that documents where the devices are; and some are in pretty remote areas and put there as repeaters as sort of a community service. This sort of community network is being seeded through goTenna’s Ambassador program, which is a crowd-based approach to ensure there are a critical mass of transceivers in a given location to create a robust emergency network.
It’s not a stretch to see that more spectrum would allow goTenna and its developers to extend its capabilities of its protocol beyond low-speed data to voice and even video. Their ability to self-manage spectrum aligns with the shifting of market demand to on-demand and interactive communications versus one-way broadcast. In this light, Perdamo says her, “only wish is that everyone who uses public spectrum was as polite as our protocols.”
[Note: Sudo Mesh is a grassroots approach for creating community-based, wireless mesh networks based on open-source firmware applied to standard WiFi routers. It is part of a world-wide movement, called Build Your Own Internet. They have a fork, disaster radio, which combines WiFi and LoRa transceiver (uses unlicensed 900 MHz frequencies), solar cell and charger to create a node that would be part of a mesh emergency network, analogous to goTenna’s network. Although Sudo Mesh’s end goal is geared to those who cannot afford Internet or for those want an alternative to a traditional ISP, adding a node to the network requires network skills and time that are beyond the average person.
Sudo Mesh and goTenna’s use of mesh echoes the call of Devabhaktuni Srikrishna and Rajeev Krishnamoorthy for deploying that approach to create what Srikrishna called, “An indestructible wireless broadband network that everyone can use.”]