Company Techweek

Send messages through goTenna when there’s no service

By    |   September 5, 2018, 8:28 am EDT

Founded in New York in 2012, goTenna raised a $7.5M Series B round led by Union Square Ventures. The startup makes devices which pair with your smartphone and lets you communicate with others even when you don’t have service.

The startup was founded by siblings Daniela Perdomo and her brother Jorge when Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. in 2012. A frustrated Perdomo struggled for more than a year after the storm to find a way to communicate when cell towers, satellites, and Wi-Fi signals don’t work.

The solution came in the form of a Bluetooth-enabled peer-to-peer communication device. In several ways, a goTenna device, which can be used during disasters or recreational activity such as hiking, is a replacement for a satellite phone. The global market of satellite telephones is anticipated to cross $5.5 Billion by 2021. But the goTenna Mesh’s compact size (4.2 x 0.9 x 1.3 inches, ~23% smaller than an iPhone 8) and negligible weight of less than 60 grams brings relief from big, clunky satellite phones or walkie-talkies which have broadcast, providing no filters.

How It Works

Imagine being stuck in a storm or lost in any place with no service. If you have a goTenna device, you can pair it with your phone which creates its own radio signal. If you try to send a message, your smartphone will first send the message to your device, which will then shoot it out via long-range radio waves (151-154 MHz) to the intended goTenna(s) – or to others with their smartphones connected to their devices. You can send texts and GPS locations using its app without the need for towers, routers, or satellites.

The reason goTenna is able to share location offline is because it leverages the GPS on your phone, which, its FAQs explain, works all the time even if you don’t have service. The company’s technology then contextualizes that “blue dot” on detailed offline vector maps and allows you to share it with others who also have the service. Just so you’re not left guessing, a small tick appears when the person has received the message. But there’s a big drawback – the person you want to reach must have a goTenna device. The startup therefore sells two devices as a set – which together cost $179.

People-powered Connectivity

The startup first launched its flagship goTenna device in 2014 but since then, the company has launched a more sophisticated line of products, including goTenna mesh and pro. A goTenna and a goTenna mesh have a one-mile range in a city and four times the range in an open area. You can also broadcast messages in a goTenna mesh which helps it double or triple the range.

“I’m able to receive a message from Ming, who’s on top of a mountain, ‘cause our friends, and other goTenna Mesh users,” the startup’s video explains, “act as relay points between us.” This is because unlike traditional phone and communication networks, the goTenna network is strengthened with more usage.

But one can’t use a goTenna with a goTenna mesh – compelling consumers to buy the same device. The startup explains that this is because they operate on “different frequencies” and there are “regulatory restrictions which prohibit meshing on the first-gen product’s frequencies”.

Despite the shortcoming, the startup’s use case is varied. It could be used by friends to communicate during an expedition, an adventurous trip, during field visits or in a big festival where cell service could be subpar. For instance, six undergraduate researchers from the University of Maryland travelled to Andros in Bahamas to research on the species living there. When they travelled away from the coastline into the pine forest to spot The Bahama Oriole, they had to rely heavily on goTenna for internal communication.

But one of goTenna’s most noteworthy use case is for those in need of a private, decentralized, completely anonymous form of communication. “I do think there is something to decentralizing communication, to the idea that every person can be their autonomous node, and that you can create a communications system on your terms, on need as opposed to access,” Perdomo has said.

goTenna, therefore, provides the perfect opportunity to circumvent authorities. However, its limited reach means that it can only be used as an emergency device, not in place of a smartphone. It is, at most, a conversation starter for what communication, as Perdomo says, should be.

More Than Messaging

If secure communication can help consumers converse privately, the government, defense forces, firefighters can’t stay far behind. The company’s new goTenna pro has turned its focus on these serious players. While a lot like the previous two, pro is not restricted by regulations meant for consumers – allowing it access to higher frequencies and transmission at a higher wattage.

However, the startup’s rejection of internet and use of a secure, anonymous connection also means it can be used for more than just communication. Right on cue, the startup recently announced that it has launched an Android app which will allow users to send bitcoin payments without an internet connection. After syncing their mobiles with a goTenna device, people can use a txTenna app wallet to transact offline and send the bitcoin.

Despite its innovation (and a pending patent), the startup hasn’t been an overnight success. After launching in 2012, the company raised a $1.8Mseed round in late 2013 from investors such as Bloomberg Beta, Andreessen Horowitz, and Brooklyn Bridge Ventures. It would then be after three years in 2016 that the company would raise a $7.5MSeries A funding led by Walden Venture Capital. 

goTenna’s reviews while thankful for a cheaper alternative to satellite phones and walkie-talkies, complain about how one can neither contact emergency services through it nor make a voice call. Some of goTenna’s competitors like Garmin inReach, Spot X Satellite Messenger is able to send an SOS. Besides, as a goTenna message can only be sent to someone with a goTenna device, the only way it can help people during an emergency is if it reaches critical mass.

Even with these limitations, goTenna solves a problem and presents exciting possibilities for what the future of private communication can be.

 

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