Tag Archives: radio

Roundup of Secure Messengers with Off-The-Grid Capabilities (Distributed/Mesh Messengers)

Amid all the conversation about Signal, and the debate over decentralization, one thing has often not been raised: all of these things require an Internet connection.

“Of course,” you might say. “Internet is everywhere these days.” Well, not so much, and it turns out there are some very good reasons that people might want messengers that work offline. Here are some examples:

  • Internet-using messengers leak certain metadata (eg, that a person is using it, or perhaps a sophisticated adversary could use timing analysis to determine that two people are talking using it)
  • Cell signal outages due to natural disaster, large influx of people (protests, unusual sporting events, festivals, etc), or other factors
  • Locations where cell signals are not available (rural areas, camping locations, wilderness areas, etc.)
  • Devices that don’t have cell data capability (many tablets, phones that have had service expire, etc.)

How do they work?

These all use some form of local radio signal. Some, such as Briar, may use short-range Bluetooth and Wifi, while others use radios such as LoRa that can reach several miles with low power. I’ve written quite a bit about LoRa before, and its unique low-speed but extreme-distance radio capabilities even on low power.

One common thread through these is that most of them are Android-only, though many are compatible with F-Droid and privacy-enhanced Android distributions.

Every item on this list uses full end-to-end encryption (E2EE).

Let’s dive on in.


Of all the options mentioned here, Briar is the one that bridges the traditional Internet-based approach with alternative options the best. It offers three ways for distributing data:

  • Over the Internet, via Tor onion services
  • Via Bluetooth to nearby devices
  • Via Wifi, to other devices connected to the same access point, even if Internet isn’t wokring on that AP

As far as I can tell, there is no centralized server in Briar at all. Your “account”, such as it is, lives entirely within your device; if you wipe your device, you will have to make a new account and re-establish contacts. The use of Tor is also neat to see; it ensures that an adversary can’t tell, just from that, that you’re using Briar at all, though of course timing analysis may still be possible (and Bluetooth and Wifi uses may reval some of who is communicating).

Briar features several types of messages (detailed in the manual), which really are just different spins on communication, which they liken to metaphors people are familiar with:

  • Basic 1-to-1 private messaging
  • “Private groups”, in which one particular person invites people to the chat group, and can dissolve it at any time
  • “Forums”, similar to private groups, but any existing member can invite more people to them, and they continue to exist until the last member leaves (founder isn’t special)
  • “Blogs”, messages that are automatically shared with all your contacts

By default, Briar raises an audible notification for incoming messages of all types. This is configurable for each type.

“Blogs” have a way to reblog (even a built-in RSS reader to facilitate that), but framed a different way, they are broadcast messages. They could, for instance, be useful for a “send help” message to everyone (assuming that people haven’t all shut off notifications of blogs due to others using them different ways).

Briar’s how it works page has an illustration specifically of how blogs are distributed. I’m unclear on some of the details, and to what extent this applies to other kinds of messages, but one thing that you can notice from this is that a person A could write a broadcast message without Internet access, person B could receive it via Bluetooth or whatever, and then when person B gets Internet access again, the post could be distributed more widely. However, it doesn’t appear that Briar is really a full mesh, since only known contacts in the distribution path for the message would repeat it.

There are some downsides to Briar. One is that, since an account is fully localized to a device, one must have a separate account for each device. That can lead to contacts having to pick a specific device to send a message to. There is an online indicator, which may help, but it’s definitely not the kind of seamless experience you get from Internet-only messengers. Also, it doesn’t support migrating to a new phone, live voice/video calls, or attachments, but attachments are in the works.

All in all, a solid communicator, and is the only one on this list that works 100% with the hardware everyone already has. While Bluetooth and Wifi have far more limited range than the other entries, there is undeniably convenience in not needing any additional hardware, and it may be particularly helpful when extra bags/pockets aren’t available. Also, Briar is fully Open Source.


Meshtastic is a radio-first LoRa mesh project. What do I mean by radio-first? Well, basically cell phones are how you interact with Meshtastic, but they are optional. The hardware costs about $30 and the batteries last about 8 days. Range between nodes is a few miles in typical conditions (up to 11km / 7mi in ideal conditions), but nodes act as repeaters, so it is quite conceivable to just drop a node “in the middle” if you and contacts will be far apart. The project estimates that around 2000 nodes are in operation, and the network is stronger the more nodes are around.

The getting started site describes how to build one.

Most Meshtastic device builds have a screen and some buttons. They can be used independently from the Android app to display received messages, distance and bearing to other devices (assuming both have a GPS enabled), etc. This video is an introduction showing it off, this one goes over the hardware buttons. So even if your phone is dead, you can at least know where your friends are. Incidentally, the phone links up to the radio board using Bluetooth, and can provide a location source if you didn’t include one in your build. There are ideas about solar power for Meshtastic devices, too.

Meshtastic doesn’t, as far as I know, have an option for routing communication over the Internet, but the devices appear to be very thoughtfully-engineered and easy enough to put together. This one is definitely on my list to try.

Ripple-based devices

This is based on the LoRa Mesh Radio Instructables project, and is similar in concept to Meshtastic. It uses similar hardware, a similar app, but also has an option with a QWERTY hardware keyboard available, for those that want completely phone-free operation while still being able to send messages.

There are a number of related projects posted at Instructables: a GPS tracker, some sensors, etc. These are variations on the same basic concept.

These use the Ripple firmware, which is not open source, so I haven’t pursued it further.


For people that want less of a DIY model, and don’t mind proprietary solutions, there are two I’ll mention. The first is GoTenna Mesh, which is LoRa-based and sells units for $90 each. However, there are significant community concerns about the longevity of the project, as GoTenna has re-focused on government and corporate work. The Android app hasn’t been updated in 6 monnths despite a number of reviews citing issues, and the iOS app is also crusty.


Even more expensive at $125 each is the Beartooth. Also a proprietary option, I haven’t looked into it more, but they are specifically targetting backwoods types of markets.

Do not use: Bridgefy

Bridgefy was briefly prominent since it was used during the Hong Kong protests. However, numerous vulnerabilities have been demonstrated, and the developers have said they are re-working the app to address them. I wouldn’t recommend it for now.

Alternatives: GMRS handhelds

In the USA, GMRS voice handhelds are widely available. Although a license is required, it is simple (no exam) and cheap ($35) and extends to a whole family. GMRS radios also interoperate with FRS radios, which require no license and share some frequencies, but are limited to lower power (though are often sufficient).

Handheld GMRS radios that use up to 5W of power are readily available. A voice signal is a lot harder to carry for a long distance than a very low-bandwidth digital one, so even with much more power you will probably not get the same kind of range you will with something like Meshtastic, and they don’t come with any kind of security or encryption at all. However, for basic communication, they are often a useful tool.

TCP/IP over LoRa radios

As I wrote yesterday, I have been experimenting with LoRa radios. Today, I got TCP/IP working over them!

The AX.25 protocol did indeed turn out to be well-suited to this. It’s simple and works. The performance is, predictably, terrible; ping times around 500-600ms, but it does work. I fired up ssh, ran emacs, did a bit with bash, and — yep! Very cool. I tried mosh as well, thinking it would be great for this, but for some reason it just flooded the link with endless packets and was actually rather terrible.

I wrote up how to use it. It’s not even all that hard!

Pretty satisfying seeing this work.

Long-Range Radios: A Perfect Match for Unix Protocols From The 70s

It seems I’ve been on a bit of a vintage computing kick lately. After connecting an original DEC vt420 to Linux and resurrecting some old operating systems, I dove into UUCP.

In fact, it so happened that earlier in the week, my used copy of Managing UUCP & Usenet (its author list includes none other than Tim O’Reilly) arrived. I was reading about the challenges of networking in the 70s: half-duplex lines, slow transmission rates, and modems that had separate dialers. And then I stumbled upon long-distance radio. It turns out that a lot of modern long-distance radio has much in common with the challenges of communication in the 1970s – 1990s, and some of our old protocols might be particularly well-suited for it. Let me explain — I’ll start with the old software, and then talk about the really cool stuff going on in hardware (some radios that can send a signal for 10-20km or more with very little power!), and finally discuss how to bring it all together.


UUCP, for those of you that may literally have been born after it faded in popularity, is a batch system for exchanging files and doing remote execution. For users, the uucp command copies files to or from a remote system, and uux executes commands on a remote system. In practical terms, the most popular use of this was to use uux to execute rmail on the remote system, which would receive an email message on stdin and inject it into the system’s mail queue. All UUCP commands are queued up and transmitted when a “call” occurs — over a modem, TCP, ssh pipe, whatever.

UUCP had to deal with all sorts of line conditions: very slow lines (300bps), half-duplex lines, noisy and error-prone communication, poor or nonexistent flow control, even 7-bit communication. It supports a number of different transport protocols that can accommodate these varying conditions. It turns out that these mesh fairly perfectly with some properties of modern long-distance radio.


The AX.25 stack is a frame-based protocol used by amateur radio folks. Its air speed is 300bps, 1200bps, or (rarely) 9600bps. The Linux kernel has support for the AX.25 protocol and it is quite possible to run TCP/IP atop it. I have personally used AX.25 to telnet to a Linux box 15 miles away over a 1200bps air speed, and have also connected all the way from Kansas to Texas and Indiana using 300bps AX.25 using atmospheric skip. AX.25 has “connected” packets (as TCP) and unconnected/broadcast ones (similar to UDP) and is a error-detected protocol with retransmit. The radios generally used with AX.25 are always half-duplex and some of them have iffy carrier detection (which means collision is frequent). Although the whole AX.25 stack has grown rare in recent years, a subset of it is still in wide use as the basis for APRS.

A lot of this is achieved using equipment that’s not particularly portable: antennas on poles, radios that transmit with anywhere from 1W to 100W of power (even 1W is far more than small portable devices normally use), etc. Also, under the regulations of the amateur radio service, transmitters must be managed by a licensed operator and cannot be encrypted.

Nevertheless, AX.25 is just a protocol and it could, of course, run on other kinds of carriers than traditional amateur radios.

Long-range low-power radios

There is a lot being done with radios these days, much of which I’m not going to discuss. I’m not covering very short-range links such as Bluetooth, ZigBee, etc. Nor am I covering longer-range links that require large and highly-directional antennas (such as some are doing in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands). What I’m covering is long-range links that can be used by portable devices.

There is always a compromise in radios, and if we are going to achieve long-range links with poor antennas and low power, the compromise is going to be in bitrate. These technologies may scale down to as low at 300bps or up to around 115200bps. They can, as a side bonus, often be quite cheap.

HC-12 radios

HC-12 is a radio board, commonly used with Arduino, that sports 500bps to 115200bps communication. According to the vendor, in 500bps mode, the range is 1800m or 0.9mi, while at 115200bps, the range is 100m or 328ft. They’re very cheap, at around $5 each.

There are a few downsides to HC-12. One is that the lowest air bitrate is 500bps, but the lowest UART bitrate is 1200bps, and they have no flow control. So, if you are running in long-range mode, “only small packets can be sent: max 60 bytes with the interval of 2 seconds.” This would pose a challenge in many scenarios: though not much for UUCP, which can be perfectly well configured to have a 60-byte packet size and a window size of 1, which would wait for a remote ACK before proceeding.

Also, they operate over 433.4-473.0 MHz which appears to fall outside the license-free bands. It seems that many people using HC-12 are doing so illegally. With care, it would be possible to operate it under amateur radio rules, since this range is mostly within the 70cm allocation, but then it must follow amateur radio restrictions.

LoRa radios

LoRa is a set of standards for long range radios, which are advertised as having a range of 15km (9mi) or more in rural areas, and several km in cities.

LoRa can be done in several ways: the main LoRa protocol, and LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN expects to use an Internet gateway, which will tell each node what frequency to use, how much power to use, etc. LoRa is such that a commercial operator could set up roughly one LoRaWAN gateway per city due to the large coverage area, and some areas have good LoRa coverage due to just such operators. The difference between the two is roughly analogous to the difference between connecting two machines with an Ethernet crossover cable, and a connection over the Internet; LoRaWAN includes more protocol layers atop the basic LoRa. I have yet to learn much about LoRaWAN; I’ll follow up later on that point.

The speed of LoRa ranges from (and different people will say different things here) about 500bps to about 20000bps. LoRa is a packetized protocol, and the maximum packet size depends

LoRa sensors often advertise battery life in the months or years, and can be quite small. The protocol makes an excellent choice for sensors in remote or widely dispersed areas. LoRa transceiver boards for Arduino can be found for under $15 from places like Mouser.

I wound up purchasing two LoStik USB LoRa radios from Amazon. With some experimentation, with even very bad RF conditions (tiny antennas, one of them in the house, the other in a car), I was able to successfully decode LoRa packets from 2 miles away! And these aren’t even the most powerful transmitters available.

Talking UUCP over LoRa

In order to make this all work, I needed to write interface software; the LoRa radios don’t just transmit things straight out. So I wrote lorapipe. I have successfully transmitted files across this UUCP link!

Developing lorapipe was somewhat more challenging than I expected. For one, the LoRa modem raw protocol isn’t well-suited to rapid fire packet transmission; after receiving each packet, the modem exits receive mode and must be told to receive again. Collisions with protocols that ACKd data and had a receive window — which are many — were a problem so bad that it rendered some of the protocols unusable. I wound up adding a “expect more data after this packet” byte to every transmission, and have the receiver not transmit until it believes the sender is finished. This dramatically improved things. There’s more detail on this in my lorapipe documentation.

So far, I have successfully communicated over LoRa using UUCP, kermit, and YMODEM. KISS support will be coming next.

I am also hoping to discover the range I can get from this thing if I use more proper antennas (outdoor) and transmitters capable of transmitting with more power.

All in all, a fun project so far.

An Incredible Story From Soviet Times

This was written by Tom Dailey, and I’ve lightly edited it:

In 1965, I was stationed at the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Center in San Diego. I was a Radioman 2nd. Class in the USN, at the time.

One evening, at our radio club station (W6DCM – different license holder, now), I called CQ and got UAƘKKC (it’s no longer around), with Ivan at the mic. After a time of the usual signal reports and such, we asked what each did in their lives – I said that I was US Navy radio operator.

He answered that HE ALSO was a Navy radio operator in the Soviet navy. Then we discovered that his station was at the SUBMARINE base at Vladivostok, and I of course was his DIRECT opponent.

Yes… we really DID laugh at that, and I shall never forget what he said (that I heartily agreed with):

“Thomas, isn’t it shame that we’re supposed to hate each other?”

“Yes, Ivan, it is – someday we’ll share a vodka, da?”

“Da”, he replied.

We’re often told we should hate people. Messages I have heard on the media over the last 10 years have said we ought to hate illegal immigrants, CEOs, radical Muslims, the French, Iranians, Mexicans, presidents, UN diplomats, climate scientists, oil company employees, Chinese people, conservatives, liberals, religious people, atheists, and oh yes, still Russians.

But I get to choose who to hate, and in fact, I choose NO HATE. Not only does it keep my stress level way lower, but it also lets me enjoy life more, and makes the world a better place.

We can all talk to people in other countries and with other backgrounds and viewpoints so easily thanks to the Internet. Sadly we rarely have very deep online conversations to the point of getting to know people. For whatever reason, ham radio lends itself to that better.

Even better: visit other places. I wonder how many people that say they hate some group of people have visited them and made an effort to make a connection? It is, after all, really hard to hate someone that is kind to you. Perhaps they’re afraid to let go of their hate.

Think also about this: for whom is it convenient if you hate people? There is usually a reason that hatred is stoked, and it doesn’t usually lead to good things for individual people.

Tom W0EAJ added:

I actually tried to locate him and the station, but both appear to have vanished. Ivan (his name was pronounced Eee-von) could have, it occured to me later, gotten into trouble for saying such things. I think both of us realized AT THE TIME, what an astounding counterpoint each of us was to the other.

Proof that if it were left up to the simple little guys like us, and not to the politicians, we might actually pull off living in peace.

Once, We Were Makers

I saw an article on Wired today: The Lost Tribes of RadioShack. It is well worth the read even if you’re not into electronics. A key quote:

[H]is shop is a lone outpost; in a single generation, the American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.

I remember as a kid eagerly awaiting each year’s new RadioShack catalog. I’d read them pretty much cover to cover for fun. And who wouldn’t? The catalogs had fun things like radios, telephone gadgets, calculators, tape recorders, electronic “lab kits”, books, components, LEDs… I loved the catalogs and loved the store.

My parents bought me a electronic kit (if memory serves 20 years later, it’s the “deluxe 160-project electronic kit” from page 156 of the 1988 catalog, though it may have been purchased a different year). I had endless fun with that thing. It had resistors, diode, capacitors, oscillator, speaker, LED, relay, etc — plenty to make a bunch of kid-friendly projects.

Just looking at the catalog makes me excited even today. On the next page from the kit I had is a $5 crystal radio kit which needs no power source — “Solderless. With earphone, instructions, theory.” On page 28 there was a revolving red light, and some microcassette recorders on p. 36 (I had one of those for awhile).

I had enthusiasm for building and figuring out things for a long time. My dad let me take apart an old lawn mower for fun once — I’m sure he knew ahead of time it would never be back together. One of his friends from work built homemade contraptions out of things like an old vacuum cleaner (attach a cardboard tube to the exhaust and you get a great tennis ball shooter). And there was always all sorts of fun junk to discover up in the barn.

I eventually shifted to a different sort of “making things”: programming. It has kept me busy for quite a number of years.

But the Wired article has a point. RadioShack is struggling. Many people have no interest in making or fixing things anymore. The best-selling smartphone in the world comes sealed in a metal case where not even the battery can be replaced, the software is dictated by a company in California, and good luck trying to program for it without signing your life away first. A far cry from the first computer I used, a TRS-80 Color Computer II, bought, yes, at RadioShack. Turn it on, and in a few seconds you get a BASIC prompt. Can’t really use it without programming. Being able to read its manual was an early motivation for me to work at learning to read.

It is sad that so many devices can’t be worked on anymore, and that so many people don’t care. It is difficult for me to give Jacob (and later, Oliver) the sort of experience I had as a child. Companies would love to sell us $50 DVD sets, $300 “educational” game systems, $40 educational games, and any number of $30 plastic toys (some of which we have and the boys enjoy).

I’d rather give him a $10 bag of resistors, capacitors, wire, battery holders, LEDs, and a book, and see what he can come up with (when he’s a bit older, of course). And, in fact, he and I built his first computer together. We installed the ultimate in operating systems for tinkering: Linux.

This all brings me back to RadioShack. I’ve been working on ham radio lately, with an eye to that being a project for Jacob (age 3.5), Oliver (just turned 1), and me to enjoy in the future. I needed some cable, and had been told by many people to visit the RadioShack in Derby, KS. It’s like the one mentioned in the Wired article: huge, selling everything from washing machines to bulk cable, except this one specializes in amateur radio.

I asked Jacob if he would like to come with me to a radio store. “Dad, I would LOVE that!” He brought his little semi-broken walkie-talkies with him to use during the hour drive there. At one point, he was concerned that a radio store is like a library and he might have to leave them on a shelf. I assured him he could keep them.

We got to the RadioShack and he loved it. He couldn’t even really contain his excitement. He ran back and forth along the bright green stripe running down the middle of the carpet. He excitedly watched them measure out 60ft of RG-8 coax for me. He pushed buttons on the demo clothes dryer, looked at all the antennas, and just had a great time.

And he’s been interested in my radio, too. When I was talking to somebody on it the other day, he said, “I think he is at the radio store. He is having fun there.” Right now, everybody I talk to on the radio is at the radio store to him. Jacob loves the fact that the backlight on my FT-857D can change colors, and often comes into the office just so I can put it into setup mode and let him spin the big wheel to change the colors. He enjoys opening boxes of components, and came out to help (and run around) while I suspended a dipole from some trees last Friday.

I had told Jacob when we got to the store that “This radio store is called RadioShack.” He obviously took that to heart, because now if he hears me talking about “a radio store”, he will say, “Dad, actually it is radio SHACK.”

So I say thank you to the Derby RadioShack for keeping the magic of making things with your dad alive for another generation.


Wow — tonight was thrilling. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s pretty exciting to have a radio setup that is all wrong in so many ways work well enough for me to sit in my kitchen in Kansas and talk to someone in Indianapolis using only two-way HF radios.

I recently passed my technician and general amateur radio exams. I’ve been talking to some very nice people locally on the 2m band, which permits local (say, 100-200mi radius) communication. It’s been fun, but Kansas is sparsely populated enough that sometimes there just isn’t any activity. At all.

Earlier this week, my Yaesu FT-857D and two antennas arrived. I tried it first on VHF, and had a nice chat with Kent (KB0RWI) a few miles away. But tonight was the big experiment.

I bought a 20m dipole antenna. This is basically a 30-foot-long wire, connected to a balun and a coax feed line in the middle. You’re supposed to put it at least 30 feet off the ground, and away from trees, houses, etc. You’re supposed to have a nice RF ground for your transmitter, power supply, antenna tuner, and all that stuff. You’re not supposed to just run the coax under that (until today, annoying) small hole in the seal under the kitchen storm door. You’re supposed to have to have the correct connectors on your coax, instead of soldering an RG-8 PL-259 onto some RG-8X because you’re new at this and didn’t realize that you need to buy an adapter.

And, I’m really pretty sure that you’re not supposed to have an aggressive outdoor cat — complete with a full set of claws and teeth — attack the coax RG-8X cable as it’s being pulled through the grass.

Fail to do any of these things, and the thing might not work well, or might not work at all, or for people that use old equipment, might burn out your radio or something.

So anyway I got out the ladder today, and I got the antenna maybe 10-15 feet in the air. I have three trees in a row with the perfect separation to hang each end and the center balun from. So while Jacob went around playing with water and trying out the ladder on occasion (with my help), I used some string to hang the antenna. In the trees, not far from them. Near the house. Not 30ft off the ground.

I strung the feed line into the house, set up all my equipment on our kitchen table, flipped the switch. And — nothing. Just the occasional familiar whine while tuning. I tried the 20m band, then the 40m, then even 15, 12, and 10. No activity anywhere. So what was wrong?

I improvised some grounding — extracted the ground conductor from an old strip of AC house wiring, shoved it into the ground, and grounded the tuner and transmitter. No difference.

I unplugged the coax, and tested it with my multimeter. It tested out OK.

I plugged it back in and wiggled the connector. Turns out the connector isn’t in great shape, but it had been working.

I tried transmitting. The tuner made a whole bunch of alarming-sounding clicking noises (sounded like a symphony of relays), indicated SWR over 3, and the ammeter on my power supply went a bit nuts. Later I realized that I just wasn’t giving the tuner enough time to tune up; with a few more seconds, it tuned up just fine on every frequency. (So yes, it was supposed to do that.)

And, it turns out, that all I needed to do was wait a little while longer to hear some signals. Pretty soon I was finding stuff all over the 40m band. I heard a discussion from Chicago, another from Oklahoma City, some apparent broadcasters from Africa.

I decided I would try and transmit. I was hearing one side of a discussion very clearly and decided I would wait for an opportunity to try to contact that person. I heard his callsign, K9RM. I looked it up, and realized he was near Indianapolis, where I had lived for awhile.

Eventually he invited a station trying to get in to participate. And:

“KD0MJT” (I announced my callsign, as a request to join the conversation)

He said he only made out the 0, but eventually we were talking quite well. It was a brief conversation, but interesting; the person he was talking to was in Portland, and couldn’t hear me (and I could barely hear him, but not loud enough to make out).

That with no phone lines, no Internet provider needed, etc. And with a rig that is far from being at peak efficiency. I had no idea what to expect tonight — and was surprised that just tossing an antenna up in a tree let me talk to someone in Indiana. That’s 650 miles away. I wonder what I’ll be able to do once I get things done the right way.

This hobby is going to be fun. Many thanks to Mike_W for equipment suggestions, Kent and Dan from Newton ARC for encouragement and coming out to the house to test things, Kent for being my first ham radio contact ever (on 2m while I was using an old 1981 radio), Chuck (K9RM) for taking a few minutes to be my first HF contact, and my dad for helping plan out exterior wall penetration methods that will eliminate this coax under the kitchen door and lack of grounding business.

Jacob, by the way, still loves his radios and is starting to take an interest in mine. It wouldn’t shock me at all of he’s one of these kids that gets his technician license in the 2nd grade or something. I think he and I can do this together for a long time.

Update 11/1/2010: My callsign has changed to KR0L.