As a string of hurricanes started making landfall in late August 2017, many people turned to the walkie-talkie app Zello for emergency communications. The communication tool quickly shot up to the number 1 spot in Apple's app store and rescue groups like the "Cajun Navy" reported that it was an invaluable tool to help locate people stranded by rising flood waters:
Zello, a walkie-talkie app, has seen a 20-fold increase in usage in the past week, according to Bill Moore, the company’s chief executive. The app typically picks up in usage during natural disasters and has found particular use this time among the Cajun Navy, a group of civilians who have been using their own boats to rescue residents.
The app has also seen double the number of daily active users, with a baseline of eight million monthly active unique users and 100 million registered users.
“It’s ideal for situations where you’re solving problems or the stakes are high,” Moore said.
Unfortunately, the app's quick rise in popularity, coupled with the chaos of incoming hurricanes, led to some confusion about how the app functions. Viral message started to circulate on social media which made vague claims about how Zello could still function without cell towers:
VERY IMPORTANT COMMUNICATION NEWS IF WE LOSE CELL TOWERS. If we lose cell service during the storm. Here is what to do for communication:
Download the app Zello now. You can use it in the event of an emergency like a walkie talkie. Many people used it in Houston and were rescued because of it. Spread the word.
One person said it was integral to the Cajun Navy in Houston for them to communicate rescuing people. I just downloaded it, it took about 30 seconds and it is really cool, works just like a real walkie-talkie. After it is downloaded it will ask you if you want to test the app, click yes. At that point the walkie-talkie part will show up and you will have a red circle in the middle of the screen, press down on that Circle and hold it until it turns green and start talking, when you are done talking stop pressing, kind of like a real walkie talkies with buttons on the side.
DOWNLOAD ZELLO NOW, please.
This led many people to believe that Zello would still be a viable form of communication even without internet access:
Although Zello can be invaluable during an emergency situation, it still requires either wireless internet or cellular data to function:
There is a massive misinformation among users in Puerto Rico that Zello will work without internet. It will *not*, please RT.
— Zello Inc (@Zello) September 6, 2017
Zello elaborated in a Facebook post:
There has been some misinformation spread about Zello requirements. Please inform others:
Zello REQUIRES Internet using either WiFi or cellular data network of at least 2G.
Zello REQUIERE acceso a Internet usando WiFi o una red de datos celular de al menos 2G
The confusion likely stemmed from a misunderstanding about the function of cell towers. Not only do cell towers make it possible to place regular phone calls, but they are also used for some internet communications:
Instead of connecting to some cable that serves as the network pipe, cellular modems communicate over wireless links to the Internet via cell phone towers.
Apple Insider elaborated:
Zello uses some form of voice-over-IP (VOIP) to function. It does not utilize the now-shuttered PTT network commonly used on Nextel devices. As such, a reliable Wi-Fi or LTE connection is needed on both ends. Additionally, the Zello servers need to be fully operational and not overburdened.
Zello does provide several tools for emergency communications. As Business Insider explained, the app basically turns your phone into a walkie-talkie or a two-way radio. However, the app still requires internet access or cellular data to function.
The app, called Zello, lets you use your phone as a walkie talkie or two-way radio as long as you have a network or WiFi connection. Users can join channels and instantly send voice messages or photos.