The claim: Walkie-talkie app Zello can be used if you lose service during Hurricane Ida
Hurricane Ida made landfall on the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29 as a Category 4 storm.
As residents sought ways to stay in touch during the storm, some social media users pointed to a walkie-talkie app as a more reliable means of communication.
“New Orleans friends not evacuating: There’s an app called Zello that turns your phone into a walkie-talkie if you lose service,” reads a graphic shared in an Aug. 28 Facebook post. “Please download and inform your friends and family.”
But this is bad advice. While the push-to-talk app simulates a radio’s traditional two-way communication, it can’t work without internet access.
USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook and Instagram users for comment.
Can’t use the app without internet or cell service
Launched in 2011, Zello has gained popularity over the last several years particularly during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, bouts of civil unrest across the globe and recently during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
The app operates by allowing users to join existing channels or create their own. Once a channel is joined, live audio transmissions from any member of the channel can be heard together, much like with a police scanner.
Zello’s channels can also be used to instantly send voice messages, photos and live updates on the event being followed.
The channel feature makes Zello somewhat like a handheld walkie-talkie, which converts a user’s voice into radio signals transmitted over a shared radio frequency band, also called a channel.
But unlike a walkie-talkie that relies on radio waves picked up and transmitted by an antenna, Zello requires the signal-carrying power of nearby cellular towers, or the internet, to transmit audio or any information.
So if someone loses cell service amid a natural disaster, they’ll likely also lose cell tower-based internet service. However, Zello could still be used if the person has access to the internet through Wi-Fi at a home or business that is provided by anunderground, fiber optic cable, which typically can endure extreme weather events.
Our rating: Missing context
We rate the claim that walkie-talkie app Zello can be used if you lose cell service during Hurricane Ida, MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research, because without additional information it could be misleading. Zello uses the internet to transmit audio and other content on the app. It can still function if users lose tower-based cell and internet service, but only if the person has access to a Wi-Fi network.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, Aug. 29, ‘We will get through this together’: Hurricane Ida, stronger than Katrina, blasts Louisana after landfall
- WAFB9, Aug. 28, Hurricane Ida will be ‘strongest storm’ to hit Louisana since 1850s, governor warns
- NOLA.com, Aug. 29, Nearly 600,000 without power, as Hurricane Ida rips through southeast Louisana
- USA TODAY, Sept. 6, 2017, From Cajun Navy to Houston midwives, Zello is go-to app for Harvey rescues
- Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2017, Hurricane Irma just made a digital walkie-talkie the No. 1 app online
- NPR, March 5, 2014, Zello App Gains Popularity With World’s Protesters
- The Guardian, Jan. 13, Revealed: walkie-talkie app Zello hosted far-right groups who stormed Capitol
- Business Insider, Sept. 7, 2017, Here’s how to use Zello, the walkie-talkie app people are downloading ahead of Hurricane Irma
- How Stuff Works, accessed Aug. 30, How Walkie-talkies Work
- Zello, Sept. 6, 2017, Facebook post
- Zello, Sept. 11, 2018, Twitter thread
- Pilot Fiber, accessed Aug. 30, The Perfect Storm: How Weather Affects The Internet
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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.