Extending cellphone range — sort of


Recently, fellow editor Kathleen Atkins sent me a link to a new product that might interest those who visit the backcountry. According to a TechCruch article, tech startup goTenna will sell its communication device exclusively through sports retailer REI. The device is designed to enable cellphone texting when you’re out of cell-signal range.

As someone who has spent a fair bit of time in wilderness areas, this piqued my interest. For good or bad, cellphones have become the primary means of calling for help when things go wrong in the backcountry. In fact, cellphones have become a major problem in many parks, with too many visitors are needlessly calling for assistance.

But if you’re out of range of cell towers, your phone isn’t going to help. GoTenna (site) is designed to allow cellphone connections when there’s no cellular signal. That said, I think many potential buyers will look quickly at the marketing content and get the wrong idea about the device’s capability. I did.

GoTenna is an interesting concept whose limitations need to be well understood. Most importantly, it’s not going to give you a link to the cellular network when you move out of normal signal range. It’s not a range-extender antenna.

What it will do is add peer-to-peer connections between two phones. Think of it as turning your smartphone into a walkie-talkie. The goTenna kit includes two antenna-like devices that each pair to a phone via Bluetooth. Those two phones can then send text and map data to each other — or to other nearby phones with linked goTennas.

Signal range is given as one to four miles, depending on the local geography and other possible interference sources.

Safely heading into the backcountry requires a good understanding of what you and your gear can and can’t do. GoTenna might be helpful, but it’s not technology you want to depend on. I’ll stick with a good paper map and a rugged GPS.


  1. Adam

    Or get your ham radio license and carry an HT.

    • Larry

      You nailed it, Adam.

    • Stephen Hope

      Or take a cheap CB radio, good for 4 miles with accomplices if your in a group. Sure, ham can reach 40 miles but for communications with a group, i.e. our 4wd club, CB works really well.

  2. Kevin

    At the risk of being considered a vocabulary snob, it's not ...peaked my interest..., but rather ...piqued my interest... Thanks for a neat article.

    • Tracey Capen

      Which is why I don't play Scrabble.

  3. Dave

    One reason I still retain my old Radio Shack Realistic CB walkie talkie. Back in the rubber duckie days, it was pricey, I think I paid around $298.00, and 12 AA batts weren't cheap as well, but have come down in price significantly. Keeping 12 new in the unit and another 12 standby is cheap safety! Unlike cell, the higher up you go the better chance of calling someone. Please don't tell me this frequency band has been shut down.

    • Tracey Capen Post author

      Actually, altitude can by a cellphone's friend. On Denali, I could not get a signal at 11,000 feet, but I could at 14,000 feet and above. It was nice to call home.