If you’ve ever been at a music festival where too many people are trying to use their phones, or wandered away from your friends on a hike, you’re probably familiar with the drag of losing cell service.
Daniela Perdomo, CEO and co-founder of the communications startup goTenna, actually despises it.
“When you go to Coachella, your text messages should not go to a tower,” Perdomo tells Business Insider.
That’s why goTenna launched its first product last year, a portable antenna that uses VHF radio waves to communicate with other goTennas within a 3-4-mile range with the help of a paired smartphone app.
Now the company is introducing its souped-up sophomore product, goTenna Mesh, a product the company claims is the first and only one that’s 100% off-grid, fully mobile, long-range, and designed for consumer use.
Unlike the original goTenna, which is capable only of point-to-point contact, the new Mesh model actually builds a network of devices that ping one another to increase an individual device’s range beyond the few miles it can reach on its own. The result is that networks get stronger with size, not weaker.
Consider a hypothetical scenario: Two people, each with their own goTenna Mesh, go on a hike. Person A needs to contact Person B, but they’re out of range of one another. Using a mesh network, Person A’s device will see if anyone else with a goTenna Mesh is within range. If Persons C, D, and E are in the area and have the device, A’s message will jump from one to the next, like a leapfrog, until it arrives at Person B.
All this happens within fractions of a second. The only thing Persons A and B will see on their phones is that the message was received. Persons C, D, and E will be none the wiser.
Mesh networks aren’t new, but until goTenna came along, you could only find them in military communication. In those cases, the devices that use mesh networks are often bulky and cost tens of thousands of dollars. To make a lighter, cheaper, and smaller alternative, Perdomo’s team stripped its functionality down to just text and data — no phone calls.
“When you do higher-bandwidth communication like voice, you need a bigger battery,” she says.
Perdomo emphasises that goTenna Mesh isn’t meant to replace the original goTenna system, merely supplement it.
The bigger vision is to create completely bottom-up communication, Perdomo says. The company wants people to create their own connectivity instead of being forced to rely on a carrier to access it.
“If individuals can create communication,” she explains, “then you might be able to create infrastructure that is as fluid as the people who use it, which means where there are more people, there is by definition more communication, as opposed to less of it.”
The company has gone through the regulatory processes so Mesh models will now work on frequencies outside the US. If you travel from Los Angeles to London, your phone’s GPS will know to sync the app with the correct radio frequency in England. The same goes for a dozen other countries in Europe.
The release of goTenna Mesh ($179) coincides with the rollout of goTenna Plus ($9.99/year, $29.99/year thereafter), premium software that includes topographic maps, individual delivery confirmations within group chats, and the ability to let someone know your location at a specific interval — say, every five minutes.
In early 2017, the company also plans to release an institutional product called goTenna Pro that first-responders and other professional organisations can use.
Perdomo acknowledges, however, that challenges await the company. After all, the utility of a network depends on its size. So if only a few people decide to buy the new goTenna, the mesh network will still be fairly weak, and therefore not as helpful. The company has launched a Kickstarter to drum up interest among early-adopters that can help build out a larger community.
But Perdomo also wants to appreciate the victories that come with starting a new way of communicating on any scale.
“Even if it ends up being just a mesh of eight people on acid at Burning Man,” she says, “whatever, that’s magic, too.”