Have you ever thought about how dependent modern society is on the cellular phone?
We’ve reaped the benefits of having “always on” connectivity and the ability to contact anyone and just about anywhere at our finger tips.
But the truth is that the cellular system is quite fragile – and it is not something we can count on to be “always on”.
Let’s talk about situations where having a backup emergency communications (not reliant on cell service) might be important.
We’re going to compare cell phones with walkie-talkies, handheld radios – and some cool new tech known as radio mesh networks.
Situations where The Cell Network is Down
As you probably know – the cellular networks are a collection of radio towers (that require electricity and connectivity) throughout most populated areas of the US.
And those cell towers are essential to how the system works – two phones cannot communicate directly with one another over long distances – the cell network acts as the middleman to pass the messages along.
Let’s talk about situations where having no signal is going to be inevitable.
Natural Disasters and other Emergency Situations
Hurricanes, floods, large scale forest fires – all these things have happened in the continental United States in the last year.
And when the power is out (or under water) – there’s not going to be cell phone service.
It can take days, or weeks for power to be restored – and it can impact a wide geographical region – as happened with Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
But this isn’t the only situation where “no signal” can happen.
The “backcountry” area of the US is actually quite large – there are many desolate stretches of highway, mountains, desert, and forest that have no cell tower coverage.
This is a great way to “get away” from the hustle and bustle of modern life – but it can leave you disconnected from anyone else who is not in your immediate vicinity.
Have you ever been to a really crowded festival, music concert, or sports event?
Even if you can get a cell signal – the local towers are likely far too overloaded to handle all the calls and text messages.
Couple this with the extraordinarily large crowd – and you can see where this really hampers communications.
Cruise ships spend a lot at seas – where there are no cell towers.
And while you’ll be in close contact with other people – you may want to have some way to communicate over the ship with your family – this can be a great convenience and contribute to the enjoyment of your vacation.
Traveling overseas on business or with your family is a lot of fun.
But the costs of staying connected via cellular can result in a very large phone bill.
You can limit yourself to using WiFi networks – but then you are tied to a location – and that is not very helpful if you are on the move.
Here’s another thing to consider – when you are using the cellular network you are far from anonymous.
The cell phone has to continuously transmit it’s physical location – so it can connect to the closest cell tower.
And while this isn’t a consideration for an emergency or convenience – it is an overall consideration for your privacy.
Ok – hopefully that’s enough discussion about the reasons why you need a backup communication method besides your cell phone.
Let’s talk about what we can do about it.
Radio to the Rescue
Cell phones are in fact just mobile radios.
But they can’t be used for “point-to-point” communications – that’s why you are reliant on that cell tower being close by, and up and running.
That’s where radios come in – like walkie-talkies.
These handheld radios let you have point-to-point communications anywhere on the planet – as long as both devices are within range of each other.
Walkie-talkies are easy to find – there are many different brands and sizes.
The Midland - GXT1030VP4 Two-Way Radio (Buy on Amazon) are a good example.
The simplest ones don’t require any sort of FCC licensing to use.
The benefits of walkie-talkies:
- Can be found anywhere
- Compact and easy to carry
But, the downsides are as follows.
They are very short range (typically 1-3 miles.)
They are yet another device that you have to store and carry – and provide batteries for.
But, despite all that we recommend you have in your survival kit at least a pair of walkie-talkies – that are known to be working.
You should use some form of Lithium batteries that can hold a charge for an extended amount of time.
The walkie talkie is no good if it’s out of battery!
- 2-WAY RADIOS - These walkie-talkies feature 50 GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) channels, along with channel scan to check for activity. The JIS4 Waterproof Protection prevents splashing water from having any harmful effect on it (splash resistant).
- 36-MILE RANGE - Longer range communication in open areas with little or no obstruction. Easy Voice and Sound Activation Transmission (eVOX) with 9 sensitivity levels for hands-free operation.
- 142 CTCSS/DCS PRIVACY CODES - The privacy codes give you up to 3,124 channel options to block other conversations.
- NOAA WEATHER SCAN + ALERT - NOAA Weather Scan will automatically scan through 10 available weather (WX) band channels and locks onto the strongest weather channel to alert you of severe weather updates. NOAA Weather Alert will sound an alarm indicating that there is a risk of severe weather in your area.
- INCLUDED IN THE BOX: Radios (x2), rechargeable battery packs (x2), boom mic headsets (x2), belt clips (x2), 120V dual desktop charger, AC adapter, DC adapter, and an owner's manual.
Radios More Powerful Than Walkie Talkies
Let’s talk more about range.
Those small hand-held walkie-talkies might be good for only a mile or two – especially the lower end consumer tech.
You can step up to a more powerful radio – but you may need to seek FCC licensing.
The Yaesu FT-60R Handheld Radio (Buy on Amazon) is one such radio.
A more powerful handheld radio is going to have much longer range – this one can transmit at up to 5 watts. That’s about 5x what your typical consumer walkie-talkie can do.
It’s also going to be useful to contact emergency services, law enforcement, and other governmental agencies.
These are powerful radios – and the government knows how important the air waves are – so it doesn’t want you screwing around on the radio.
A more powerful radio like this will require you to obtain an FCC license.
That’s because it works on the frequencies where you can talk over important “official business”.
Honestly, the license is not a big deal – and it’s not much expense either.
Just remember, the government wants serious business only on these frequencies – so don’t use it for your entertainment – you could be interrupting important emergency communications.
(Having said that – it’s technically OK to break into any transmission on any frequency in the event of a true emergency.)
- Dual Band VHF/UHF 2 Meter & 70cm Amateur Radio.
- CTCSS/DCS (PL & DPL), DTMF, AlphaNumeric Display, Lighted Keypad, Scan modes.
- Receives 108-520Mhz and 700-999.99Mhz (less cell), Transmits 144-148Mhz & 430-470Mhz, Locking mode prevents accidental changes of frequency.
- One Thousand memory Channels, NOAA Weather Alert, Receives Emergency channels in 800-900Mhz, RF Power Output: 5W (High) / 2W (Middle) / 5W (Low)
- Includes 1400mA Battery, Charger, antenna & belt clip.
Using something like the Yaesu model is going to be pretty involved – look at all those buttons.
But that’s the tradeoff for more power and capabilities – you have to know how to use it.
But, with all that power the Yaesu could be the foundation of a tactical radio comms setup.
Carrying a bigger radio around isn’t our only range-extending option though – let’s talk about mesh networks next.
Mesh Radio Networks
The military has used mesh radio networks for years.
Remember how we said walkie-talkies are only good for “point to point”?
A mesh network still has devices that talk “point to point” – but they have the extra ability to pass a message on to another “hop” (device).
This means as long as you are within radio range for any device (node) on the network – you can communicate with anyone else.
When is this helpful?
Let’s say you have a group of 4 people – as long as anyone in the group is within range of another node of the mesh they can communicate with anyone.
This gives us a highly mobile network we can use anywhere – without the “point to point” limitations of regular radio.
What’s even better is that this mesh network requires no centralized base station or control point.
And lastly, these networks use digital radios.
That means everything is encrypted – end to end.
This means only the recipient of your message can read the message.
The US Military employs a lot of radio tech with these capabilities and they can handle voice, text, pictures, video, and more.
In fact, they use a smartphone app called ATAK in combination with mesh network radios to achieve breakthrough “Situational Awareness.”
How can civilians make use of this?
This new and exotic radio technology is only just now becoming available on the civilian market.
Let’s take a closer look at the goTenna Mesh (Buy on Amazon) from goTenna.
This little device is a mobile mesh radio that you pair with your existing smartphone.
It will let you send messages in text format (no voice) and share your GPS position with other users who also have a goTenna Mesh.
These are sold in two-packs.
You pair it your phone using Bluetooth and install goTenna’s app.
You can then communicate point-to-point – up to 4 miles away.
We like this device because it bridges the gap between having to carry around a separate handheld radio – and still being able to do point-to-point comms in the absence of a cell network.
And remember, these are radios – you can use them anywhere – backcountry, desert, crowded events, and more.
The other thing we love about this solution – it is so small and light-weight – there’s no excuse to not pack it when you need it.
These are a lot more convenient than a set of walkie-talkies – or a handheld GPS.
Here’s where the “mesh” comes in – these devices will communicate with one another to pass messages across up to 6 hops.
And these can act as a stationary relay as well – because they are self contained.
Hang one in a convenient location – and you’ve just range extended your radio network.
This is a great option for a team of people working in a fairly wide geographic area.
It’s known as “off-grid” communications – because it works anywhere.
This is a great option if your group is split up.
How’s the range? Up to 4 miles between any two nodes – just remember that there are certain terrain features that can block or degrade radio signals – mountains, buildings, etc.
- NOTICE: Any products sold by a third-party are not from the manufacture and cannot be confirmed as holding up-to-date firmware. Protect your purchase and buy from trusted and authorized sellers only and goTenna.
- SMART DEVICE: goTenna Mesh pairs to your phone and enables it to privately relay texts and GPS locations between other goTenna devices, up to 4 miles in range.
- INDEPENDENT And FREE: You don't need phone service, routers, towers or satellites to use goTenna. Power your own network, whenever and wherever you need it.
- Secure encryption- No central data-store so your private chats are end-to-end encrypted. Cell phone/wifi coverage is required in the initial set up and app download.
- CHAT, TEXT And GPS: Our super-smart mesh protocol powers private 1-to-1, group chats or public emergency broadcasts to all nearby users. Plus, the free goTenna app includes detailed offline maps for any region in the world.
Emergency Communications for Civilians – In Summary
Some photos are provided by the manufacturer.
Last update on 2019-10-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API