A new tool for disasters: The personal antenna

Communications are independent of cellular networks

A Brooklyn-based startup called goTenna has created a portable antenna that may just save the day when cellular service is unavailable.

The portable antenna connects to a smartphone via a Bluetooth Low Energy link. Once connected, users with either an iOS or Android app can then send text messages through the antenna. (The recipient must also have a goTenna, and consequently the product is sold in pairs.)

The device uses the 151MHz-154MHz frequencies, with range depending on location. In a densely populated place like Manhattan, that range could be less than a mile. In more open spaces, up to 50 miles is possible. The antenna, which takes a USB-delivered charge, will store messages and hold them until a connection can be made.

goTenna
The goTenna connects to a smartphone via a Bluetooth Low Energy link.

Businesses employ a range of backup communications technologies, including long-range satellite phones and ham radios, as well as shorter range walkie-talkies. The goTenna could serve as an alternative to a walkie-talkie -- and even offers some advantages over other options. For example, its messages are encrypted and private, a separate device isn't needed, and people can use the goTenna system with their smartphone interface.

The goTenna also has the ability to "shout" a message by delivering it to all goTenna users who have opted in to receive a broadcast.

"That fact that we are totally decentralized means that in many ways it can be a backup to your backup," said goTenna CEO Daniela Perdomo, who co-founded the company with her brother, Jorge Perdomo, goTenna's CTO.

In addition to using goTenna as an emergency tool, Perdomo said people could use the technology as a means of communicating while they're traveling, when they're taking part in outdoor recreation activities, or when they're involved in any type of situation that requires private communication. The antenna uses a Lithium-ion battery and is estimated to last two to three days with normal use, or as long as 30 hours if it's on continuously.

Perdomo said the outages created by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 prompted her to imagine ways smartphones could be made to directly communicate with other phones.

The goTenna will ship in late fall, but a pair of the devices can be preordered for $149.99.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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