No Service? No Problem: GoTenna enables smartphones to communicate off-grid across up to 50 miles

By Michael Carney , written on July 17, 2014

From The News Desk

We’ve all been in a situation where we need to communicate but have no cellular coverage. Often it’s a matter of being in a foreign, remote, or highly obstructed area. Occasionally, it means being in a large crowd like at a festival. But in the worst of cases, it means being in a natural disaster-like scenario where local infrastructure is down.

It’s one thing to be without connectivity when you just need to post that selfie of yourself and your favorite actor or musician. It’s a much darker moment when you need a lifeline to the outside world.

GoTenna is a new hardware connectivity device that turns your smartphone into a long-range text-based walkie talkie without any need for an external cell tower. It may sound trivial at first blush, but it’s anything but. Make no mistake about it, this will be a big deal with disaster relief organizations, outdoor enthusiasts, end-of-world preppers, and, likely, mainstream consumers.

“We think this will spread pretty quickly once people see what it can do,” says GoTenna co-founder and CEO Daniela Perdomo. “If you’re in a situation where someone else gets a message through and you don’t, why wouldn’t you immediately go out and buy one? Our message is ‘No service, no problem.’”

GoTenna, which goes on pre-sale today, is a lightweight (2 oz), compact (5 in.), and waterproof candybar shaped unit that can fit in a pocket or strap to a backpack or other piece of gear. “I can’t tell you how many times we visited REI during the design process,” Perdomo says. “We wanted it to be on par with the best outdoor electronics equipment.”

The device has a range of up to 50 miles (geography permitting), using low frequency radio waves to cover these long distances, and connects to smartphones via bluetooth which has a range of 20 to 40 feet. The patent pending design includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, antenna, Bluetooth LE chip, radio, and power amplifier.

The hardware unit comes with an accompanying mobile app that allows GoTenna users to create private contacts list and communicate to discrete groups within this network – think of a hiking or camping trip, a group of friends attending a music festival, or simply parents that never want to lose touch with their kids. The platform also allows users to broadcast an emergency message to any GoTenna user within range, regardless of affiliation, and gives users the option to accept public, non-emergency messages from nearby users not in their personal network. Uniquely, there is no ongoing subscription fee for using GoTenna.

Perdomo co-founded GoTenna with her brother, Jorge Perdomo, who is a systems architect. The company’s patent-pending decentralized networking platform currently supports text messaging and location sharing via off-line maps, but has the potential to support other communication formats, according to its creators. The device works entirely independent of cellular or WiFi, meaning a smartphone can be kept on power-saving Airplane mode with Bluetooth enabled and still communicate across the network.

Because “GoTenna is more fun with friends” according to the company party line, which is to say everyone who wants to communicate on the decentralized network needs their own GoTenna receiver, the device sells in pairs. During presale, users can purchase a pair for $149.99, a 50 percent discount off the target retail price. The goal is to sell $50,000 worth of product at these pre-sale prices, which would translate into roughly 333 GoTenna pairs. Longer term, Perdomo envisions selling retail packages of more than two devices, suggesting five-packs may be a possibility. The company will also do enterprise-sales aimed at groups like the Red Cross, FEMA, and emergency first-responders.

GoTenna has a long waiting list of both individual and enterprise customers that want to buy its devices, Perdomo tells me. But the company is wholly focused on the consumer market at the outset. “I think we just understand that market better,” Perdomo says. “Selling into the enterprise will require customization, training, and a SaaS platform of some sort. That will come eventually, it’s just an order of operations thing. We’re already having those conversations.” The company also has no plans to sell through third-party retail (online or brick-and-mortar) at the moment, although that is likely to be part of its long-term distribution strategy.

GoTenna is not cheap, meaning price could be an issue among the casual hobbyist crowd, especially before the utility of the product has been clearly demonstrated. But that said, the device promises to solve a very relatable and often highly-painful problem. Also, outdoor enthusiasts are generally willing to spend significant sums on their gear. Given that GoTenna is both a convenience and a safety device, the decision may be easier than expected.

“I think we’re uniquely positioned to solve this problem in an authentic way,” Perdomo says. “We’re not ‘the man.’ We’re not some corporation that has a history of spying on you or collecting your data. We don’t have any vested interest in doing this for any other reasons than to deliver peace of mind. We believe that we’re doing something that can be additive to society. It’s really exciting to put something out there and see what amazing ways that people can use it.”

The New York-based startup has raised $1.8 million in seed capital from investors that include Bloomberg Beta, Collaborative Fund, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, MentorTech, Andreessen Horowitz*, and unnamed strategic partners in the telecom, hardware, and manufacturing sectors.

On the supply-chain front, GoTenna is taking the slightly atypical approach of manufacturing in Mexico rather than Asia. The decision boiled down to location. “Being our first product, we prioritized ease of access – it’s only a few hours away and in a similar time zone – and ease of communication – I speak fluent Spanish over price,” Perdomo says. “And because of NAFTA, there’s no import duties, which means that the total price winds up being not that much different in the end.”

Perdomo is intent on making clear that GoTenna is not launching a crowdfunding campaign aimed at completing a conceptual design, but rather just pre-selling its first manufacturing run of a finished and ready to manufacture product. “We didn’t want the sheen of some amateurish crowdfunding product,” she says.

“I was inspired to create GoTenna after surviving Hurricane Sandy,” Perdomo says, noting that the company was born in November 2013, just one month after the deadly East Coast storm. “We want to allow people to do what you love to do with more peace of mind, and less restrictions or fear of being out of communication. We’re really a mission-driven company. I think we’re solving a real world problem.“

[*Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are investors in Pando.]