Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the East Coast when it struck in November 2012. A major part of that damage was to communication infrastructure; in New York City, Daniela Perdomo, an entrepreneur in the tech startup world at the time, saw that her fellow residents of the otherwise well-connected city were vulnerable. She realized the need for a communications system for everyday consumers that worked independently of cell tower service.
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Within a few weeks she had loose plans for a smartphone device that at its early stages was incredibly small. By early 2013, after some tech consultations, she had created a prototype of what would become the goTenna ($150 for two), a hand-sized, 2-ounce device with a retractable antenna that allows users to send and receive text and GPS information using their smartphone without needing cell service. Less than two years later, Perdomo was showing the device to press at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market expo in Salt Lake City, where it won the Outside 2014 Gear of the Show and Gear Junkie‘s Best in Show Gear awards.
The success of the goTenna, which will first be released to the public in the winter of 2014/2015, stems from its versatility. Along with the obvious hikers and campers
and drug cartels, techies and festival goers at packed events like Coachella can use the device to find each other without pinging off the nearest over-saturated cell tower — and according to Perdomo, travelers don’t have to pay to roam in a foreign country. And of course the survivalist crowd can add the goTenna to their zombie apocalypse emergency kit.
Perdomo wanted to capitalize on the smartphone’s omnipresence with her disaster relief device. Instead of carrying a separate walkie talkie, with which “you can hear everyone else talking”, Perdomo said she wanted to make use of the Bluetooth Low Energy network already available to iPhone and Android devices. Smartphones communicate with the goTenna through an app; the device then emits long-range radio waves (151-154 MHz). Surrounding goTennas, purportedly in the range of about 0.5-1 miles in the city to 4-6 miles across desert (though theoretical ranges reach 50 miles in some settings), will then receive the radio waves with their retractable antennae; they transmit the information to their paired Bluetooth devices, and the app displays the text message and/or location of the sender. (The app will store this information for later if the paired device is powered down.)
“We set out to build a consumer-ready, completely decentralized, end-to-end innocent or nefarious communication technology, without a ‘back-door’ for anyone, because it didn’t exist yet, and we thought it should. We’ll leave it at that.”
The goTenna is ingenious for its ability to adapt existing technology. Smartphones can be kept in airplane mode and still send and receive 160-character messages (provided Bluetooth is on). Instead of continually searching for service at a music festival or trailhead, your phone conserves battery life — and this functionality will mitigate your phone bill when roaming in a foreign country. The goTenna also utilizes its home phone’s GPS for what is arguably its best feature: users can share their GPS location and view others on a detailed, preloaded offline map, all for free. No more blue dots sitting on a field of unbuffered white.
What’s more, users can yell for help. (Well, text for help.) Whereas less urgent messages work like a Skype call, in which you must be “friends” with whoever it is you are sending a long-wave radio message to, more urgent messages fall into two categories: Shout and Emergency Chat. Shouting sends a message to every goTenna within range. Think of this as backcountry Tindering, or asking a neighbor to borrow fire-starter. Users can choose to opt out of being a Shout recipient, but no one can opt out of receiving an Emergency Chat. On an honor system, these messages are reserved for life-threatening situations.
Battery life on an emergency device is a huge priority, and unfortunately, goTenna’s effectiveness depends on not only its own battery but the battery of your Bluetooth device. At full charge, the goTenna’s battery lasts about 30 hours. If you send a message while the recipient’s goTenna is powered off, the message will be automatically re-sent and its delivery confirmed. The goTenna holds its charge for a year and a half powered down, so you can store it in an emergency kit without worrying about dead batteries, at least for a while.
The device comes along at just the right time for very different groups of people. Recent threats to privacy from tech companies, hackers and the government alike make the goTenna’s decentralized, encrypted and completely off-line communications appealing for any dealings that users want to keep secret. This is no accident; by goTenna’s own admission, “We set out to build a consumer-ready, completely decentralized, end-to-end innocent or nefarious communication technology, without a ‘back-door’ for anyone, because it didn’t exist yet, and we thought it should. We’ll leave it at that.”
Still, the most heavily targeted group is hikers who, not wanting to shell out for the equipment and service costs of a satellite phone, look toward lightweight add-ons like goTenna to update their safety and survival gear beyond a whistle and flare. This group will jive with goTenna’s “REI-inspired” aesthetic; Permodo explained that the device was designed to look like something that belongs in a hiking backpack, “not a beautiful jewel you worry about destroying”. Additionally, there’s the rise in popularity of large outdoor music festivals; the hordes of smartphone users that attend them can now use an updated, text-based walkie talkie at a loud set without reminding everyone of family trips to Disney World.
But this walkie talkie aspect is also goTenna’s biggest shortcoming: that it can only communicate with other goTennas. For this reason, the site sells the device in packs of two ($150) and four ($290). While GPS-enabled FPS walkie talkies are available, they aren’t as sleek and private as the goTenna, so for those looking for an updated way to communicate with traveling buds, this is it. But true survivalists will no doubt note that the goTenna has nothing on the ubiquity and scope of a HAM radio broadcast. You know: the kind of broadcast you hear in zombie movies about a potential safe zone far away on the other side of a 90-minute film.
But for the rest of us, this slender, pocket-sized device could buy some piece of mind at what is, all things considered, a competitive price. Just make sure that if the end comes, you find a generator for your smartphone and goTenna, quick.