After Hurricane Sandy, Daniela Perdomo never again wanted to be in a situation where she needed cell service but couldn’t get it. “I was just sitting there thinking, we don’t have Wi-Fi, we don’t have phone service,” she told Fast Company. “We have these phones on us that are supposed to be communication devices.”
Soon after the storm, a frustrated Perdomo set out to find a way to use her phone when cell towers, satellites, and Wi-Fi signals don’t work. The only problem: She didn’t really know how to accomplish her goal. Perdomo doesn’t have an engineering background. She had worked at various tech startups over the last five years, but mostly in media.
With the help of her brother Jorge, a systems architect and one of GoTenna’s cofounders, and a stint at the NYC Resistor hackerspace, however, she received an education in communication technology. A year and a half later, she’s releasing GoTenna, a Bluetooth-enabled peer-to-peer communication device, on sale today for $149.99 per set.
Anyone who has the five-inch-long dongle on her person can talk to anyone else who has GoTenna within range–a distance that varies depending on location. Someone in the subway can’t text someone above ground, because the signal won’t pass through concrete. But a person at an outdoor festival will likely reach a friend at a completely different stage. Perdomo says in a city the low-frequency radio waves reach about a mile, but in an open field it can reach about 50 miles. The two-ounce device is compatible with any iOS or Android smartphone, as long as it sits within 20 feet of the phone.
The service works like a stripped-down version of WhatsApp, connecting up with your phone’s contact list and pulling in anyone who also has GoTenna. Perdomo, however, suspects that the privacy crowd might find the technology appealing, in which case they will want complete anonymity. “We have created this decentralized peer-to-peer communication system,” she explained. “There is essentially no back door. We have also decided to make every message encrypted.” For those people, the app assigns a randomly generated number and doesn’t sync with the phone’s address book. Only those who have the PIN can contact the user.
Once connected, people can text each other, send a map with a pin at the user’s exact location, and send “shouts,” which send messages to anyone with GoTenna in the area. The service doesn’t offer pictures or video messaging. During GoTenna’s testing, the company found that in situations when they have no service, users were more interested in specific messages like, “Meet me here,” or “I’m OK,” than sending, say, a selfie.
What GoTenna offers over a cruder device like a walkie-talkie is delivery confirmation. Instead of having your SOS signal lost in the airwave abyss, a little checkmark shows up when a person has read the message. It also provides a level of clarity: The words show up, there are no fuzzy mixed messages.
The use cases go beyond emergency weather situations, but are pretty specific. Some possible scenarios that Perdomo offered include: a group of hikers worried about possible separation in the wilderness, a group of friends at a big outdoor music festival with subpar cell service, travelers who don’t want to pay roaming charges to stay in touch, and privacy fanatics who want a decentralized, completely anonymous form of communication.
Perdomo thinks all of those groups combined will attract a healthy user base. The company is aiming for $50,000 worth of pre-orders. GoTenna is also working with emergency relief organizations, which might use it on the ground in Sandy-like situations.
While $150 might seem steep right now, it’s definitely one of those things you appreciate in times of need. Plus, it doesn’t cost anything additional to use the app. “We never want someone to not be able to communicate because they didn’t buy a plan,” Perdomo said.