Cellphone service and WiFi often fail when people need to communicate, such as during the recent storm Arthur and other natural disasters that knock out power and disable cellphone towers, sometimes for days. Now, a U.S. company says it has a solution that will allow people to send text messages without power, cellphone networks or WiFi.

The goTenna was launched this week by Daniela and Jorge Perdomo, a sister-brother team in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The battery-powered device, which is about the size and shape of a slim remote control, connects to Apple and Android smartphones using Bluetooth. An app paired with the device allows users to transmit encrypted text messages via long-range radio signals directly to other users with the device, without passing through a central network.

Jorge and Daniela Perdomo

The company was founded by a Jorge Perdomo and his sister Daniela Perdomo, inspired by Jorge's frustration at being unable to connect with friends at crowded music festivals and Daniela's own experiences during Hurricane Sandy. (goTenna)

The company says at an elevation of 10 metres, the range of the device in the city is about two kilometres. At an elevation of 150 metres, its range can be up to 40 kilometres in the city and double that in more open areas such as wilderness. 

In a blog post, Daniela Perdomo said she envisions goTenna being used not just during natural disasters but:

  • In crowded places such as marathon finish lines and music festivals, where cellphone towers are swamped and disabled by too many users.
  • During hikes to remote places off the grid.
  • While travelling, to avoid roaming costs.

Perdomo wrote that the goTenna was inspired by both her brother's frustration at being unable to connect with friends at crowded music festivals and her own experiences during Hurricane Sandy.

"Ultimately I believe that decentralizing communication makes it more resilient," Perdomo wrote. "To take a tired tech meme further: the future of mobile is really mobile."

Regulatory approval needed

goTenna app screenshot

An app paired with the device allows users to transmit encrypted text messages via long-range radio signals directly to other users with the device. (goTenna)

The company has started taking pre-orders on its website for $149 US instead of the "retail" price of $300. However, those who pre-order the device won't get it unless it is approved by the U.S. telecom regulator, the Federal Communications Commission.

According to goTenna, the agency is currently testing the device, and the tests will be complete in a couple of weeks.

Besides allowing people to connect with their friends, it also has "shout" and "emergency" features that broadcast public messages to everyone within range.

The battery lasts about 30 hours when it is on continuously, and will hold its charge for about 18 months when off.

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goTenna from goTenna on Vimeo.