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Getting in touch with people when cell phones not working

When the cell phone towers are overloaded and you’re trying to meet up with people on the ride who have different schedules or stay in different campgrounds, are there any good workarounds?

I can only think of wi-fi in libraries, etc, but most people aren’t going to check that. I don’t know much about two-way radios or the range, etc. Making plans to meet at a landmark at the end of the day is too restrictive and inconvenient for most people.

20 Replies

Ben There, January 30, 2020 at 8:31 pm

Texts seem to be reliable and go through much better than phone calls. There might be a delay, but usually text get through (as long as neither phone is in no-service area). A call requires both phones to get time on a tower at same time. I think the system can receive a text from one phone, and beam it out to another phone when time allows. Maybe a telecom Eng can give a better answer. Best to have a backup plan in place ahead of time.


Uncle Kraig, January 30, 2020 at 8:54 pm

Ex-telecomm guy here….even in the smallest towns with the busiest of networks, texting will work almost instantly in most cases. If not, it is still much, much quicker than waiting for a voice call.


Logan Foltz, January 30, 2020 at 9:19 pm

So I hate talking on the phone and am mainly a texter. But texts took several hours to go through last year for me at times. Because of this there was a friend in a different charter I barely saw.

The route does not go through any larger cities this year so I am wary of relying on texting. I have some friends staying on a charter and am debating whether I should join just to ease coordination, as otherwise I would probably just stay in the main campground and use the regular baggage service.


mootsman, January 30, 2020 at 11:58 pm

Emails seemed to work even when texting did not the last time I had trouble.


genefruit, January 31, 2020 at 7:02 am

[quote quote=1314962]Making plans to meet at a landmark at the end of the day is too restrictive and inconvenient for most people.[/quote]

Our group has found this to be the most effective though. I suppose it depends on what you’re looking to achieve. If it’s simply to hang out during the evening, meeting at the landmark has worked for us. 7pm at the north side of the square is easy to remember and is almost applicable in every overnight town. You either make it or you don’t, with no obligation to do so.


Uncle Kraig, January 31, 2020 at 8:52 am

This seems to work well too…..I’ll meet you at the first bar on the left, unless it’s on the right :)


CyclingCyclone, January 31, 2020 at 10:57 am

I remember back in the early 80’s riding RAGBRAI, and at the main campgrounds a group of Ham radio operators would set up shop, and you could send a message to whoever for free. I think it was 25 words or less.


Dusty Ayers, January 31, 2020 at 11:06 am

The first year I did the ride cell phones weren’t too widely spread – SO – we picked up from some team a list of bars in each town. Each day we’d pick 3-4 rally spots. Most towns have a park too. Pass throughs usually have a vendor, or you can meet AT a library, which will most likely be down town. No matter what, a little digital recon the day before can be worth quite a bit.


Mike Howe, January 31, 2020 at 11:39 am

Theres no rhyme or reason to the cell phone signal. Ive been in bigger overnight towns expecting to have a strong signal but end up with no signal only to receive several texts at 1am that were sent earlier in the day. Ive been in very small pass through towns where Ive had a great signal and have been able to send/receive texts and make calls with no problem. I think its hardest to text or make calls in the evening when most people are in the overnight town in one spot and arent spread out over the route. After 11pm when a lot of people are in their tents the cell signal sometimes get a little stronger.

Using the wifi at the library is an option but even that isnt guaranteed with so many people logging onto the wifi. Best bet is to try and find a meeting spot beforehand or make plans to meet somewhere….firehouse, a specific food vendor, or if you know the name of a bar restaraunt in the town make plans to meet there.


KenH, January 31, 2020 at 12:50 pm

Success with a cell phone depends on both who your carrier is and where you are. In one town one carrier’s service will be overwhelmed while another’s is working, mostly. In the next town the situation could be just the opposite. Overall texting does seem to work the best however there are no guarantees at RAGBRAI! My team relies on texting and it works well enough, often enough, that we don’t have much trouble meeting up.

The first year we did RAGBRAI we tried using litte FRS walkie talkies. They worked occasionally but for the most part they seemed swamped too. Amateur radios may work better but you have to have enough licensed amateurs on your team so that everyone is in contact with someone with a radio. And to be clear I have never tried to use my amateur radios at RAGBRAI so I do not KNOW that they would get through consistently I am only speculating that they MIGHT. I’m the only “ham” on my team so I would have no one to talk to even if they do work. Unless one of you tells me that you will talk to me and in that case I will bring my HT along this year. Just ask for N9EK! Amateur radios have much more range than FRS radios. They can use more power and they can talk through “repeaters”. Repeaters are a little like cell towers although they are owned by individual hams and clubs and their locations depend on there being enough hams in an area to justify putting one up. The repeater antenna is usually located fairly high so it has a good path to radios for miles around, the repeater receiver is very sensitive so that it can hear low power radios from far away and its transmitter can transmit hundreds of Watts so that hand held radios can hear it from far away. But repeaters would be swamped well before cell towers if everyone tried to use them!

There are cell phone apps that allow a collection of cell phones to self assemble a network. I presume the network operates over either the bluetooth or wifi radios that most cell phones have. People have tried to promote the use of these apps here in the hopes of reaching a critical mass of users that would allow good communications links between any two users any time of the day and in any location. I have never participated in these attempts and I have never heard anyone comment on how well they worked after RAGBRAI, I have only heard the pleas for people to join the effort in advance of RAGBRAI.

All in all texting works fairly well. If you want you can have pre-arranged meeting points as a backup.


John Little, February 1, 2020 at 6:48 pm

We had 10 GoTenna Mesh units in our group last year, and they certainly worked in the small towns after the cell towers became overwhelmed.


2newknees2newbeers, February 1, 2020 at 7:27 pm

I dread every year using my phone. Our team uses a GroupMe app year round and on the ride to connect with one another and also group text. Phone calls are useless, except some times during day and you never no you may even get a connection. I always try when taking a pee in a cornfield because I have had success calling home then. Its just strange tell them what you’re doing. Unless we’re near an interstate its mostly impossible get a signal. Your best bet is to leave your phone turned off or on airplane mode cause it will continue searching for the nearest tower and that could be in a bean field in South Dakota, by then your phone may be out of juice by then. Our team frequents beer gardens, tents, and Pork Chop man. We may find each other there. We have a meet up at the Meeting town or lunch town. Sometimes your phone text won’t come through until later that night, so you just ride around town just looking. If you have a team bus or support vehicle waiting for you most likely they will be with all the other vehicles since they
can only get into town via the vehicle route. Sometimes you may miss them entirely. Go strike up a conversation with another rider and make a new friend. I try to meet a few new people everyday. Who knows they may have seen one of your group. See ya in July


Jose Medina, February 1, 2020 at 8:08 pm

In 30 years of doing Ragbrai,there has only been one small town that I could not get a signal. I asked a local and sure enough they confirmed it. I live in Iowa and US Cellular has the most and strongest towers. I use US Cellular. I have had to lend my phone to fellow riders when they could not get through. I saw my first cell phone on Ragbrai. We had a fellow rider come into camp and somebody told her that her mother had been in an accident and she needed to get to a pay phone to call the Highway Patrol. A guy in our group from California spoke up and said he had a phone in his duffel bag. We started laughing. He said “really I do. So he goes to his duffel bag and takes out this big brick and looks at it and says , I don’t have a signal. We had a UHaul Truck and he climbed on top of it. “I have a signal,heave her up here” which we did. She started talking on that thing and our jaws dropped to the ground. We could not believe it. All true.


2newknees2newbeers, February 2, 2020 at 9:39 am

One year I got a phone for a week with Verizon, they said Verizon has the best coverage in Iowa during Ragbrai, not that year. I normally have AT&T, provided by work. AT@T sucks in Iowa, people who had Verizon were also bitching no coverage. Oh well, by the time we got to Centerville we finally got coverage, my tent neighbor said, get US Cellular, you’ll have the best coverage. May consider getting a two week phone this year for both rides and still bring my personal phone. But I’ll still get lost.


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