More than one-third of adults in the United States live in wireless-only households, homes that shirk traditional landlines and opt for cellular phones as a primary means of communication. A wireless lifestyle surely has its perks: You can make and receive calls from nearly anywhere and concentrate all your calls and accounts onto a single number.
But there’s a fatal flaw in our growing dependence on cell phones. When a network goes down—in an emergency or natural disaster, for instance—users are cut off almost entirely from friends, family and first responders. This was never more evident than during Hurricane Sandy, which, according to the Federal Communications Commission, knocked down up to half of all cellular towers in hard-hit areas along the eastern seaboard.
At the time, Brooklyn-based brother and sister Daniela and Jorge Perdomo, a veteran of startups and a systems architect respecitvely, realized what was missing: a tool that would allow communication to continue when there’s no cellular or Wi-Fi service available. Their goTenna smartphone accessory, which is currently available for preorder (2 devices for $150), allows users separated by up to 50 miles to reach one another—no matter what.
“As we sat there in the dark trying to communicate with our friends,” Daniela recalls of the Sandy outages, “I realized it was crazy that we have these supercomputers on us that don't enable us to communicate in times when we need it most.”
In the simplest terms, a pair of goTenna devices turns smartphones into long-range walkie talkies. Callers link the candybar-sized dongles to their phones over Bluetooth and launch the goTenna app. Users compose a text message, which then relays through the goTenna. The signal passes over a short-wave radio frequency to the recipient’s device, which in turn displays the message through the app. If the recipient isn’t within range, the system will automatically resend the message until it goes through.
Individuals can opt to send messages to one recipient, blast them to an entire group or ping alerts (what the company calls “shouts”) to other goTenna users who are within range. Messages can also include a user’s precise location on a map.
Users should be prepared for a broad range of usability. While the frequency goTenna uses can reach up to 50 miles in ideal, unimpeded conditions, it might only go a couple of miles in dense urban areas. The battery will last for 30 hours straight or for about three days of intermittent use. The device is currently only a prototype, so technology critics are cautiosly optomistic about its promises. GoTenna is aiming to deliver its first units this fall.
The Perdomos see goTenna’s value in disasters, but think it could be useful in other scenarios too. Ski slopes, hiking trails and national parks have notoriously unreliable—or nonexistent—cellular service, which makes it nearly impossible for parties to keep tabs on one another or to call for help if they need it. The alternative in those cases would normally be a set of clunky walkie talkies or a satellite phone, which can cost up to $1,000.
Sometimes, even if there is cell service available, users might be unable or unwilling to use it. Because goTenna signals never relay through cell towers, users can still send messages in cases when the network is overcrowded, such as at a music festival or a large conference. And, since messages are encrypted and relay directly from one device to another, there’s no chance of interception, so texts remain private.
The device comes at a time when the cellphone industry as a whole is keenly aware of its emergency-scenario shortcomings. A working group of companies, including chipmaker Qualcomm, has been developing a new standard that would allow phones to make a direct device-to-device connection when networks fail. The Proximity Services (or LTE Direct) standard, which is slated to be approved by the end of the year, would call for modified long-term evolution radios capable of establishing ad-hoc connections. Signals, however, can only travel about 500 meters, and it could be a year or two before phones with this capability hit the market.
GoTenna provides a sort of middle ground or workaround, says Daniela, that cuts service providers out of the equation entirely, but doesn’t require users to invest in new phones.
“The benefit you get is decentralization. If you never have to depend on a tower, a router or a satellite, [then] communications are entirely in your hands and on your own terms,” she says. “Say goodbye to infrastructure and be, in a sense, your own tower.”