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Get emergency iPhone-to-iPhone connections with GoTenna

gotenna unit held in a hand

In October of 2012, a huge swath of the northeastern US got smacked by Hurricane Sandy. Adding to the post-storm challenges of power, transport, fuel supply and housing shortages, the communications infrastructure suffered major outages that made recovery and response even harder. With up to 25% of New York City's cell towers inoperative, even a charged phone might as well have been stone dead.

It was the experience of Sandy that sparked Brooklyn's sibling entrepreneurs Daniela and Jorge Perdomo to create GoTenna, the new grid-independent mobile wireless device for emergencies and more. The GoTenna device -- a slim, gray, waterproof plastic external antenna/transceiver about the size of a campground butane lighter -- connects iPhones to each other for text and location messaging even when there's no cell service available. Today's pre-order launch allows early buyers to get a pair of GoTennas for $149.99, a 50% discount off of the retail price when they ship in late autumn 2014.

GoTenna CEO Daniela Perdomo told TUAW that living through the hurricane made it clear to her and her brother how valuable a truly grid-free communications tool would be to supplement conventional wireless coverage in an emergency. First responders, insurance adjusters, NGOs/relief workers and plain old citizens or disaster preppers living in high-risk areas (Tornado Alley, the Gulf Coast) may indeed be looking for that "portable insurance policy" of having a GoTenna in a go bag or glove compartment, but there are several applications for the device beyond getting ready for the end of the world.

Think of all the times when it would be helpful to connect with friends or family in spite of poor or unavailable cell coverage. Traveling overseas and want to avoid roaming charges? Unable to get through in a parade or festival crowd? Concerned that a particular text exchange might invite undue scrutiny from your carrier or the Feds? GoTenna's point to point architecture, lack of a central server and end to end encryption for messages might fit the bill. The GoTenna app also includes preloadable offline maps, custom-developed by the company, that allow you to visualize your location or a friend's without needing access to Apple or Google's maps, or the expensive licensing of maps from an existing provider.

With a Bluetooth LE pairing to your iPhone, the GoTenna should last about 72 hours in average use and will stay charged on the shelf for over a year; it recharges via a standard Micro USB connector that you could hook up to your BioLite camp stove or other mains-free charger. (John Levy, the BioLite board chairman, is also an advisor/ investor for GoTenna.)

With a 9600 bps data rate more akin to the modems of yesteryear than the LTE chipsets of today, you won't be sending any selfies or cat videos through GoTenna -- but that's not really the point. The devices also can't form a mesh network due to current FCC rules, so for now it's point-to-point only; however, you can send a "shout" message to any friends with GoTennas in range, or issue an emergency message that will go to all nearby GoTennas whether they "know" you or not.

As the GoTenna gets closer to production, we'll revisit and review the product in the field to find out just how effective it is in urban and rural settings.

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