A new device launched Thursday might soon be in the bags of every outdoor enthusiast, festival-goer, and privacy-conscious citizen. It gives phones the ability to communicate with each other over great distances, even when there's no data connection, no signal, or no network at all.
The GoTenna, about the size of a small flashlight, pairs with your phone over Bluetooth and then uses a longer-range low-frequency radio to communicate with other GoTennas up to several miles away. The lower frequency, used by devices like walkie-talkies, can travel long distances and isn't as prone to interference as Wi-Fi and 4G signals, but it also can only carry a fraction of the data.
That's no problem when all you want to do is text or send GPS coordinates (to be viewed with offline maps), which is all the GoTenna app allows you to do. It sounds limited, sure, but text-based chat is a huge part of what we use our phones for. And besides, when you're in the woods with no network or in a foreign country with no plan, any form of communication is welcome.
Of course, devices already exist that allow for communication where there's no cell signal, for instance the inReach Explorer — but these rely on satellites and require a monthly fee to stay connected (still, they're useful when you're alone and injured). The goTenna is free to use and each network is completely self-contained.
"It has no infrastructure whatsoever," explained CEO Daniela Perdomo. "Your network can be just you and one other person, or you and everyone else at Coachella."
GoTennas could also be useful in a disaster. They're waterproof and the battery should last at least for a few days of use, so keeping in touch with others and passing locations to police or emergency crews would be possible even if there was no electricity or network whatsoever.
Lastly, all the data you send on a GoTenna is encrypted, meaning no one can eavesdrop as they might be able to with a regular walkie-talkie. There are no servers for messages to pass through, so the NSA and others can't snoop or request your information be provided. That could be useful in countries with authoritarian regimes that watch the Internet and mobile networks closely.
Off-the-grid communication is highly prized, said Perdomo: "The ability to communicate on your own terms, for free, can be really life-changing."
It's also nice to think of a network of GoTennas blanketing the city, providing basic, free communication to anyone nearby — but right now, the FCC prohibits the use of these radio frequencies for "meshing" purposes.
The GoTenna sounds like a great idea, but it's also a bit of a luxury product at the moment. The company is launching pre-orders at $150 for two devices, but that price will double once the initial ordering period is over. That price may strike you as either way too high for a souped-up walkie-talkie, or a bargain for free, instant communication. Either way, it's an interesting crossover between old school and cutting-edge tech.