If goTenna can encrypt, why can’t hams?

I’ve written here before about encryption and whether or not amateur radio operators should be allowed to use encryption. I’d like to throw another log on the fire.

I just read an article in RadioWorld that describes the goTenna, a device that uses Bluetooth and the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) to allow users with smartphones to text one another even if there’s no WiFi or cellphone link. The goTenna device communicates with the smartphone via Bluetooth and then transmits in the MURS band (151 – 154 MHz).

The goTenna manufacturers claim a range of  a half mile to three and a half miles. That’s probably reasonable. In the city, you’ll get a half mile or so range, while out where it’s more open, you’ll get more range.

Among the “key features” are the following:

  • Automatic message retry & delivery confirmation
  • Individual & group messaging
  • ”Shout” broadcasts to anyone within range
  • End-to-end encryption (RSA-1024) & self-destructing messages

I have often thought that handhelds should include some kind of text-messaging feature. I suppose you can send text messages using D-STAR, but it seems like an awful expense to do that. It seems that adding this functionality to something like a BaoFeng would make it very appealing.

Also note that this device encrypts the messages. If goTenna can encrypt, why shouldn’t hams be allowed to do so? I’m really not convinced by the arguments put forth by those who are anti-encryption on my previous blog post. I think that someone—someone more knowledgeable about the topic than me—should petition the FCC to allow encryption in certain situations.


  1. Paul Stoetzer N8HM says:

    How can the amateur radio service be self policing if we cannot view the content of the communications of other amateurs? How can the FCC police the amateur radio service if they cannot view the content of the communications of other amateurs?

    If you must communicate securely, the amateur radio service is not the communications service you are looking for.

  2. There is a difference, goTenna is for profit, while Hams are for fostering good will and open communication. Encryption will stop the open communication, IMHO. PL tones and such are already bad enough when not used only to help control traffic in busy air waves. If you are really worried about someone hearing what you have to say, then ham radio is not the communication means for you.

  3. The better question is, why should hams want to encrypt their transmissions? One terrorist act, coordinated by encrypted messages using the amateur bands would be “lights out” for ham radio. So what’s the compelling use-case to do it?

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      Why would a terrorist group bother to get amateur radio licenses to do this? If they wanted to use the amateur radio bands, they’d just go ahead and do it.

      • Jeffrey Davis, KE9V says:

        My reply wasn’t meant literally. My point is I see no valid use case for encryption – I can only imagine nefarious use of encrypted messages via ham radio. Terrorists, criminals, anyone with a desire to use “secret” two-way radio. Who else needs to encrypt via the ham bands?

  4. I’m a big fan of allowing amateur radio operators to use encryption for non-voice communications. For instance, if I convert my WiFi router to a Part 15 device to use more power, I should still be able to use the standard WiFi encryption schemes. I also think that RACES members should be able to utilize encryption for voice communications for the same reason many police and fire departments encrypt their communications.

  5. Amateur radio is explicitly not for traffic that needs to remain private. It exists for limited purposes not including routine communication that can be served by other means (e.g. a phone or ordinary internet connection). It is chiefly for education and research/experimentation in radio. It is not for general personal communications or commercial use.

    The applicable rule in the US[1] says:
    “(a) No amateur station shall transmit: [...] messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning”

    This serves to ensure the amateur radio service is not used in violation of its rules and purpose.

    The rule has exceptions elsewhere in the rules. For example, remote control of satellites and model aircraft. And FCC rules as a whole pretty much go out the window when transmissions are for the purpose of protecting the immediate safety of life or property.

    The rules are also susceptible of a particular interpretation: You can use encryption, provided the algorithm is documented, and you keep a record of the keys used. This has been used to block non-amateur access to WiFi access points operating within the ordinary WiFi band, but under Part 97 rules (e.g. non-FCC-approved equipment, or higher power than allowed for unlicensed users).

    The rule also does not in any way prevent use of authentication and message integrity mechanisms, e.g. HMAC, because they are not intended to obscure the meaning of the message, merely authenticate it.

    If you need private communication, there are other avenues available than the amateur radio service. And if you want greater freedom for unlicensed use of the airwaves than now exists, you’ll have my support in principle (there are real problems with a free-for-all, but there are myriad ways FCC rules and spectrum allocation practices could be greatly improved in this regard).

  6. Dan KB6NU says:

    The argument about self-policing is a good one, but amateur radio is also supposed to be about experimentation, and these rules explicitly prohibit any experimentation. What about allowing encryption for experimentation and for low-power, short-range applications?

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