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Zello: A revolutionary tool
SECURITY SHELF

Zello: A revolutionary tool 

In aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, volunteer rescue organizations mobilized to aid fellow citizens. The Cajun Navy, a volunteer group comprised of private boat owners, formed in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “If you need rescue or want to help rescue, the best source of communication at this time is the Zello walkie talkie app,” read their Facebook page. “There are many more organizations on the ground helping in the rescue efforts, and the majority are using this app to navigate to where the needs are.” The post continued with instructions to install the Zello app and use it to communicate directly with rescue groups, noting that, “Most volunteer groups do not have the manpower to man their Facebook page at this time.”

Zello, available for Android, Blackberry, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows desktops, provides two-way radio-like functionality over the Internet. Users can contact each other directly, or join channels to communicate with groups of users, just like modern radio systems.

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The Talk Screen on the Zello iPhone App

Zello Inc. CEO Bill Moore explained that his love of radio lead him to found TuneIn, where he met Alexey Gavrilov, the founder and current CTO of Zello. In 2011, Moore joined Zello, which he describes as “social radio.” The company currently has 25 employees and a staggering 100 million registered users.

“Voice is how we naturally communicate,” said Moore, explaining that far more information is conveyed in live voice than in text. In the free consumer service, the company is focused on features that enhance the social aspects. For example, channel owners need a way to moderate content and remove disruptive users. But unlike other social products, Zello contains no advertising. The company’s revenue model is to provide ZelloWork to corporate customers.

Zello is straightforward to install. Communicating directly with others requires, like most social networks, that the recipient accept a request. Using open channels is just a matter of searching for the channel and joining it. Private channels require the user to enter a password to join. Creating a channel is easy. Numerous channel-specific features include requiring users to have a confirmed email or phone number, restricting the channel to users age 18 and above, allowing or disallowing image sharing, recording a voice introduction to the channel, and an optional password.

Users can select the level of notification on a per-channel basis. Options include always or never being notified of traffic on the channel, only being notified when a channel is connected, or being notified only when the Zello app is running. In addition, users can turn individual channels on and off. Combining these features allows users to listen to channels of interest, while remaining reachable at all times on a family or business channel.

ZelloWork builds on the consumer offering by providing larger organizations enhanced features on a closed system, including unlimited channels, archiving of all messages, and the ability to automate user and channel assignments via an API. This allows companies to integrate Zello with a larger workflow, such as automatically assigning users to a common channel when a triggering event occurs. Pricing starts at US $6 per user per month.

While many businesses choose the cloud-based ZelloWork service, allowing users to communicate seamlessly from anywhere they can get online, Zello also offers a on-premises version that will allow users to communicate without Internet connectivity. This could be a good option for organizations in remote areas that are able to provide solid WiFi connectivity, or where communication is only required when employees are on site.

Zello has established relationships with third-party hardware vendors to integrate ZelloWork with existing radio systems. These solutions range from a single channel configuration to sophisticated multi-channel digital radio integrations. As a result, companies now have the flexibility to extend RF radio systems to smart phone users.

Zello apps currently require users to log in to either a free consumer account or a ZelloWork account, but not both, at any given time. Zello is considering an option to allow ZelloWork users to communicate with Zello consumer users in the future.

Third-party bluetooth hardware extends Zello functionality, allowing phones to remain in a bag or cradle. Products include external push-to-talk buttons and water resistant speaker-mics similar to those used with traditional mobile and handheld radios.

During recent emergencies, some misinformation regarding the product has been circulating. While Zello uses an adaptive codec to allow communications over lower bandwidths, Internet connectivity is required: WiFi, LTE, 3G, or even 2G. As a result, Zello’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. As long as connectivity is available, the app can be quickly installed and used for real-time global communications. But in a disaster, if Internet infrastructure is interrupted, RF-based communication, including satellite phones and amateur radio, may be the only services left operating.

Despite its reliance on the Internet, Zello remains a revolutionary tool for social, commercial, and emergency communications.

Have a security question you’d like answered in a future column? Eric would love to hear from you.

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