The Meshtastic is my solarpunk dream—a cheap, encrypted, offgrid communicator. But the project is still in the alpha stages (and it shows).

LILYGO® TTGO Meshtastic T-Beam V1.1 ESP32 LoRa

Meshtastic is a communication system. Its firmware runs on bare-bones “T-Beam” devices. T-Beams are available fully-assembled and pre-flashed for about $35.

The devices enable encrypted, text-message-style communication via an app on your smartphone. No cell service required.

I bought two Meshtastic T-Beams for a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. The devices worked as advertised—we could share texts and locations between our Android phones even though we had no service.

Meshtastic in Yellowstone National Park

Problems Meshtastic solves

Communication infrastructure fails. Whether an earthquake in Puerto Rico or a trip to a national park—it’s easy to imagine a situation where your smartphone is useless.

And it’s trivial to surveil your communications—AT&T established room 641A to funnel communication to the NSA. And there are reports of “stingrays”—devices that masquerade as cell towers—intercepting the text messages of protestors.

Meshtastic attempts to solve these problems using cheap, readily available parts and open-source software.

Shut up and take my money.

What I dislike

Opus BT-C3100 battery charger

There’s no way around it: this is an alpha quality project. Right now, it’s only usable by nerds (like me 🌠). You’ll probably have a bad time if you’re not a tinkerer or a hobbyist.

  • Alpha quality – The project is hard to use, even for the basics. During our trip to Yellowstone, we repeatedly lost our bluetooth connection to the devices—they kept going to sleep. And the interface is sometimes unclear—I ended up holding down buttons, waiting for something (anything) to happen.
  • iOS requires Testflight – The Android mobile app worked well, but the iOS app requires Testflight to install—which seems like a pain.
  • Batteries/small bombs – The T-Beams run off big honkin’ 18650 batteries—the same lithium-ion cells used in Tesla battery packs. While the batteries last all day, I had to make extra purchases. Later I realized they run fine off of USB battery packs, but I was uncertain about that when I bought it. These things added to my costs:
  • PCBs are intimidating – Holding a PCB (printed circuit board) intimidates electronics neophytes. There are stickers available on the discourse that read: “Meshtastic: this is not a bomb” (for base stations in the field).
  • “Meshtastic” – My brain refuses to type “meshtastic” on the first try; this may be a personal problem.

What I love

There is a lot to love about this project.

  • FOSS – Meshtastic is free software—the firmware is GPL-3.0 licensed—the four software freedoms are essential for users to trust this device.
  • Encryption – Data moving between T-Beam devices is encrypted via AES256—an as-yet unbroken standard. Although, the documentation on this worries me a little: “It is pretty likely that the AES256 security is implemented ‘correctly’ and an observer will not be able to decode your messages.”1 😅
  • LoRa – The Meshtastic devices work via LoRa (Long Range) radio. In the US, LoRa uses the ISM band (on 915mHz). The ISM band has no license requirement—which means it’s legal to encrypt traffic, unlike ham radio. In testing, LoRa works up to a few miles away with a good line of sight.
  • Community – There’s a vibrant community on GitHub, Thingiverse, Discourse, and Discord. There’s excellent Documentation and folks blogging (and vlogging).

The verdict

I’m thrilled with this project. The talented people bolstering this community experiment with setting up base stations at Burning Man and running ssh tunnels via LoRa—they’re doing awesome things.

I’ve not yet begun to nerd out on this.