Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

When your organization’s standard internet connection fails, communication usually continues, thanks to smartphones, mobile apps, and cellular networks. In cases where communication is critical, emergency response providers–such as police, fire, government, and medical teams–turn to dedicated systems that enable local communications.

Prudent planners in every organization prepare for circumstances when standard services and networks don’t work. The following options let you communicate with people within a few hundred feet, within a few miles, or almost anywhere on the globe, and all are solutions to implement before an emergency occurs. You can’t download apps if you can’t access an app store, and you may not be able to order or ship devices during an emergency. Discuss, deploy, and test your emergency communications system with your team before you need it.

SEE: Network administrators: A guidebook (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

How to use nearby messaging with an app

To communicate with people nearby, install and configure a chat app that uses Bluetooth–not an internet connection–to convey messages. Unlike standard messaging apps that rely on an internet connection to send content, these messaging apps connect to nearby devices and work well when the people you need to communicate with are in a concentrated area, such as nearby offices on a small campus.

For iOS and iPadOS devices, Berkanan lets you send both public and private encrypted messages to other devices via a Bluetooth connection within a range of up to 230 feet or so. The app can also relay messages. For example, person A wants to send a message to person C, but the devices are out of Bluetooth range. If person B is within range of both A and C, a message can be securely conveyed from A to C via B. The more people with the app installed, the more likely a message can be conveyed. The app is free, with an optional subscription upgrade ($6.99 per year) to remove ads and customize your profile.

For Android, Briar can send encrypted messages via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or the internet. When syncing messages with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, other devices must be within range–typically 30 to 70 feet. Over the internet, Briar syncs via the Tor network. The app is free, open source, and available for download both from Google Play and via F-Droid (Figure A).

Figure A

On Android, Briar (left) supports messaging via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and the internet. On iOS, Berkanan (right) enables messaging via Bluetooth.

How to communicate with point-to-point devices

To communicate over a wider area, explore devices such as goTenna Mesh that allow you to send both public or private encrypted messages to individuals or groups (Figure B). You’ll need to purchase at least two of the goTenna Mesh devices ($179 for two, $329 for four, or $579 for eight), install a goTenna app (available for Android and iOS), and pair the goTenna Mesh device with your smartphone via Bluetooth. The range of the goTenna Mesh signal between devices varies with the environment but typically can reach around one mile in a city or up to four miles in an unobstructed area.

goTenna Mesh also works with relays and mesh messaging. You can configure a goTenna Mesh device to serve as a Powered Stationary Relay Node in a central spot, and messages can “hop” between up to six devices or relay nodes. A network of goTenna Mesh devices can enable communication within a relatively large local area. A goTenna Plus subscription ($9.99 per year) includes offline topographic maps, location sharing, and SMS network relay support.

Figure B

goTenna Mesh devices–paired with smartphones–can enable communication across several miles.

How to send signals to satellites

A satellite communication device–and a data plan–allows you to communicate from almost anywhere on the globe. Iridium and Garmin offer some of the most widely adopted solutions for satellite communication. Iridium GO! offers a small, durable device that connects to satellite systems, links to a smartphone (Android or iOS) via Wi-Fi, and works with supported Iridium GO! apps. Garmin inReach devices similarly connect to satellite systems and offer messaging, maps, and more, either on the device or with specific supported apps.

In either case, you’ll need to purchase devices and some sort of data plan. The Iridium GO! hardware (Figure C) starts around $699 each, with unlimited data plans available for about $135 per month. Garmin satellite communicators start around $275 each, with annual plans that offer unlimited messaging available from about $50 per month. In both cases, plans with lower data or messaging limits are available for less.

These devices require a clear connection to the satellites; if you work underground or in the interior of an office building, it’s likely you will need to move to another location to find a solid signal.

Figure C

Satellite communication systems, such as Iridium GO! (left) and Garmin inReach (right), require both a device and a data plan but allow your team to communicate almost anywhere.

Your plan or experience?

What’s your plan to communicate with your team when conventional connections aren’t available? Do you already have an option in place for nearby, local, or global messaging, and do you have related equipment–such as solar panels for charging? Are there other well-supported solutions available? Let me know the systems and tools you use, either in the comments below or on Twitter (@awolber).