Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
If you're in Boston without phone service, use this website to call your family (twilio.ly)
398 points by chrisacky on Apr 16, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

That's useful.

This is one of those times when I remind people that it might be a good idea to get an amateur radio license and have a charged handheld always available. If you do, you'll be able to talk to people locally (and halfway across the world) for free, with no centralized infrastructure to fail. (All you have to do is get 26 out of 35 multiple choice questions correct and buy a $40 radio from Amazon. Then, free communication forever.)

--KD2DTW (/AE!)

I agree, and was regretting not bringing my handheld on a trip this weekend (although I wasn't traveling in Boston, it reminded me I left it at home).

It requires a little more planning, however, as you have to have a communication protocol established with the parties you want to communicate with (primary and secondary frequencies, and when - i.e. 5 minutes past the hour or something like that). You also are likely going to have to rely on simplex, since repeaters will be jammed or used be ARES/Red Cross/etc during a major disaster or emergency.

Now if only the engineers who design handhelds would learn a thing or two about user interfaces...

73 de KJ6FON

This may seem overly pedantic (or ideological) to point out, but needing a license at all indicates the need to cater to at least one, major piece of centralization. Otherwise, yes, radio is a technology that still works.

My point may have had more "meat" to it, had the rumours been true that government ordered local cell service to be shut down in Boston. That rumour has since been debunked. But if government can shut down cell service, surely they could order some sort of ham radio shutdown as well? It doesn't mean that it would be easy to enforce, of course.

No. Point-to-point communications over RF will work (unless they're jamming a very large range of the spectrum, but then there's probably bigger problems.) When you hear about repeaters, they're used to repeat the low-powered handheld VHF/UHF signal (~5W max) to a stronger signal so more people can hear it. Repeaters are controlled and maintained by volunteers and not the government. They don't even allocate fequencies for repeaters. Registering is voluntary and it's controlled by local frequency coordinators who are again just volunteers.

The FCC and the government takes a very hands off approach to Amateur Radio. They'd rather have them be self-patrolled than get involved. the only time the FCC really gets involved is when people transmit out of amateur bands or when someone transmits without a license, but even in those cases it's usually amateurs that initiate the action.

> surely they could order some sort of ham radio shutdown as well?

Yes and no, only to the extent that some hams would respect such an order. The practicality of actually preventing someone, especially a ham from broadcasting ^H^H^H communicating via a radio is a dubious prospect.

I thought they only worked locally. How do you talk to people halfway across the world?

Handhelds (i.e. VHF/UHF, most likely 144MHz or 440MHz) will only work locally without additional equipment. If you have access to a repeater (which isn't a problem, as most are open) that's linked the internet then you can talk to anyone, either via the internet, or via a repeater (that's also connected to the internet) elsewhere.

HF (1.8 MHz - 30 MHz, in select bands) will propagate around the world if the conditions are right, just like shortwave radio. It's really the same thing, except lower power. That "if the propagation is right" is a big if, however, and also requires a large antenna. I also would not have wanted to set up a portable HF antenna in Boston this afternoon - even if perfectly legal, spreading out wire along the ground and throwing a wire up in a tree doesn't really sound like the best idea right now.

Of course, most of the time it's the HF stuff that's the most fun... and although somewhat reliable, and likely to get you talking to someone, somewhere fairly quickly, it's not going to let you talk to a specific person at a specific time with a lot of reliability, even if you've schedule things in advance.

But of course "access to a repeater" violates the part of "with no centralized infrastructure to fail" in the parent's post.

But one also has to distinguish old-school repeaters covering a medium-diameter area from the worldwide, internet-connected relays (such as IRLP). Whereas the former are easily put up freestanding on an amateur budget, and hence will stay in operation independent of all the other infrastructure, the internet-bound systems will cease operation once the internet links break down.

5W on top of a hill will give you pretty good coverage even at high higher frequencies.

There are some pretty small HF transceivers, like the Elecraft KX3.

I'm guessing that most people that are serious about making contacts across the world when "the big one" hits have mobile rigs and lots of charged batteries, and there are many capable mobile HF transceivers on the market.

There are even smaller homebrew QRP (low power) transceivers that will easily fit in an altoids tin (minus the battery), although I'd love a KX3. You need to know morse code for those to be practical, however. I'd also be, uh, slightly hesitant to bring a circuit board in an altoids tin through a TSA checkpoint.

And HF antennas are still going to be large, no matter what you do. Yeah, with enough loading coils you can get the size down a bit, but then you compromise efficiency. Physics is working against you for small HF antennas.

> I'd also be, uh, slightly hesitant to bring a circuit board in an altoids tin through a TSA checkpoint.

Terrorism: Mission accomplished.

People seem pretty happy with their Buddipoles and Buddisticks. Those are decent-sized antennas that collapse down to something that fits in your carry-on.


You could also use a VHF/UHF handheld with an 18" whip antenna and access the FM repeater on the SO-50 satellites when it's passing by. The RF window for a pass is only about 10 minutes, but then you get some height behind your transmission.


"All you have to do is get 26 out of 35 multiple choice questions correct"

Pardon my ignorance, but what are you referring to? A license? Purchase choices? Thanks!

That would be the test to get an entry level "technician" license.

The question pools are all posted online. If you remember basic physics from college, you can easily cram for the exam in an evening. (And if not, there's plenty of online lessons available to walk you through the material.)

What's the $40 radio you recommend?

Baofeng UV-3R or UV-5R. They aren't the most user friendly radios in the world, but they're cheap and put out decently clean signals. They're actually commercial radios, but they can transmit on the amateur bands. Note that they can also transmit and receive out of those bands, too.

There is no difference other than looks in all the variants that are out there (UV-5RA, UV-5R+, etc.)

Baofeng UV-5R. It's not a great first radio, but it is cheap.

I have checked those hand-held hams but they are quite big, aren't they? Or am I missing sth? Can you link to one that is really small enough to carry around and is an actual ham radio - as in works just like any other ham radio would. I am really new to all this. Need some informational push.

I have been thinking about it for a long time but I get stuck on the size. Also I read somewhere that - somehow/maybe - all that can be simulated on PC too with some smaller and additional equipment. Is it?

And, halfway across the world? They are supposed to be high power are they? Besides a conversation halfway across the globe would need some kind of repeater. Questions questions.

Transceivers need not be large, consider the Baofeng UV-3R/5R or the Yaesu VX-3R. You can put them in your pocket (though I wouldn't transmit with it in there).

You also don't need high-power for long-distance work; the Elecraft KX3 almost fits in your pocket and only puts out 10W (it runs off of 8 AA cells), but many of its users report regular worldwide contacts. (Mine is in the mail, so I'll let you know.) The key is to have a decent antenna.

Even a decent antenna is pretty easy. A long wire up in a tree works very well and even simple dipoles are easy to make with nothing more than some wire and coax.

What a great site. Shoutout to Team Twilio for constantly killing it from a marketing perspective and doing a great job on the humanitarian side as well.

On another note: It is crazy that the authorities can simply disable wireless networks en masse. Just crazy.

Not so crazy, if you think about the fact that many bombs are remotely-triggered using a cell phone. Kill the network, switch off additional bombs.

>if you think about the fact that many bombs are remotely-triggered using a cell phone. Kill the network, switch off additional bombs.

Okay, I'll see your cell network shutdown with a slight change to the bomb trigger logic. Now it they're triggered if they receive a trigger signal OR if they don't receive ANY signals for some time.

They didn't in this case, however the idea that they could is disturbing.

Source: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-naw-cellph...

Classily done. It's difficult to balance the want of marketing and yet not whore yourself out based on popular interest during a tragedy, but this helps a lot of people. Hats off.

It's not even marketing in my mind but a public obligation. If there is anyone who would be able to provide this service, it's Twilio. Agreed, hats off.

It's marketing, but it's not cynical marketing. It's the kind of marketing that should, in an ideal world, totally work. You prove you're a good, friendly company by doing good, friendly things.

It's marketing. However, it's awesome to see them spend money to help people directly, rather than on advertising or something like that.

It's always encouraging to see a startup use it's resources to help others. Unfortunately quite rare as well. Good job Twilio!

You can also make free phone calls to anywhere in the USA via Gmail. Look for the "call phone" icon on the left sidebar, above your list of contacts.

If only the whole screen wasn't bright red!

Yeah. My bad. :/

Blue is a nice, calming color for a website or bikeshed.

@djinteractive was actually kind enough to submit a pull request with a calmer red. Looks much improved.

no probs

I couldn't resist trying it out from a non-boston IP to a non-Boston number. Still worked. It's cool to see that they trusted people enough to not put any sort of controls on that.

I think it was just easier to not put up limits, hoping that people wouldn't take advantage.

A very nice move on Twilio's part. The fact they didn't seem to implement checks of Boston IP's and numbers as well and instead opting to rely on people being truthful is also great. Much respect.

Can't people already use gmail to do so?

I use gmail, so everybody else must use it also ...

Twilio is great. I read about their collaboration with the Polaris Project for Human Trafficking victims. It is always great to see companies standing up in the time of need.

>If you're in Boston without phone service, use this website to call your family.

Or, use Gmail to make unlimited domestic calls. Its disturbing that companies are looking to get marketing even out of tragic events like these.

Whenever people say stuff like this, I wast to bring up the idea of the "net good" of the implementation.

Twillio doing this doesn't take away from the tragedy and it's not preying on vulnerable people. It's helping people through their service. If they get press for it, so be it.

It's unfortunate that people think that in order for one party to "win", another party has to "lose." I think this is a good case of win/win.

By putting a big logo on the page, they are definitely trying to get some marketing mileage out of it.

Which is also promoting the gmail unlimited domestic calls service, driving business to Google.

This doesn't require you to sign up for a service.

Thanks Twillio for a proactive response to a horrible situation.

The "Source on Github" link points to a repo that isn't public at the moment.

Working on getting Travis setup now. Wanted to get the service up asap - code will be posted shortly.

Simply amazing.

Thank you for posting this, chrisacky.

Holy crap that burned my retina.


Cell service is shut down so that the terrorist cannot remote detonate any more bombs.

But if you have access to this website (internet access), then you have access to Skype and 100 other phone services... so why does this web site exist?

> Cell service is shut down so that the terrorist cannot remote detonate any more bombs.

This is false. Verizon, Sprint and AT&T have confirmed its false, hours ago. The networks are likely overloaded and, as a result, spotty, but they have not been shut down.

Lot of disinformation spreading about this. All I know is my friends couldn't call their folks, so I wrote the app.

No idea what the diagnosis or prognosis on the situation is there - we'll keep it up until we hear all the telecom infrastructure is nominal.

Great work. Taking the extra step to be proactive in a situation that seemingly is localized, you still found a way to (likely) make a difference from 3k miles way. Visibility to the site is likely the only barrier now, but if there is anyone on the ground that can spread the word, this may be a hugely beneficial service.

"UPDATE, Monday, April 15, 6:08 p.m.: Wireless carriers say reports that authorities had shut down cellphone service in the Boston area are untrue."


I ran the race today, and my cellphone has been going off all day (within minutes of the incident, far as I can tell, up to my last call an hour ago) with family and friends checking on my status (which is fine). I'm not saying the service has been good for all, and thanks to RobSpectre for setting this up, but I can say at least some phones have worked all day.

EDIT: mostly SMS, but at least a couple of incoming and outgoing calls without problems.

My cell service has also worked all day. I'm a bit confused about the status of the network, but I've tried to keep off the phone for most of the day to avoid flooding it.

Can any of those other services give you ten minutes of free talk time without registering or downloading any software? Within 30 seconds from that link you can make a phone call, I don't think Skype or any other comparable services can do that reliably as Twilio can.

Skype isn't free.

You can make free calls from GMail

True, but this is no sign up required, just type a number and hit a button.

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact