When goTenna debuted in 2014, we were so excited about the communication device’s promise that we awarded it a Gear of the Show award. The 1.8-ounce unit, which sells in pairs for $199, syncs with an iPhone or Android phone via Bluetooth to enable users to send and receive text messages and share GPS coordinates without a cell signal.
The tech sounded great in theory, but we didn’t get the chance to test it until now. Spoiler alert: the tool works brilliantly. This week, I tested two of the devices in Brooklyn, where goTenna is headquartered. I stood at one end of Prospect Park and communicated with my partner at the other end of the park, about a mile away. There were no mountains between us, but there were several large hills and lots of big buildings. To simulate an off-the-grid scenario, we turned our phones to airplane mode and started texting away using the device’s radio signal.
The texts came through flawlessly, although you are limited to 160 characters or fewer. The GPS also worked as promised. We downloaded maps to our phones before turning off the cell signal—goTenna makes maps of states and countries available for free online—and each of us appeared as little icons on the map. That feature could be key in the backcountry if you get separated from your party.
Pairing the device with my phone was as easy as setting up a pair of Bluetooth headphones. There was no radio interference because goTenna works within its own frequency. The company claims you can sync up to ten devices at once, although we didn’t test this on that day.
There are some limitations. GoTenna originally said the devices would have a range of up to 50 miles but scaled that estimate back to six miles during beta testing. The range might go to double digits if both devices are on hilltops with nothing between them, but I wouldn’t want to bank on that.
The devices don’t allow users to access the Internet or make calls—just text and see location—and you can't use a goTenna to text an unpaired cell phone. But the technology truly seems groundbreaking for international travelers (you can text your travel companions without an international data plan), people who play and work in the backcountry, and professional emergency responders who currently rely on satellite radios that cost upwards of $1,000.
The company just won a grant from RISE : NYC, a competition funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money will allow goTenna to give units to more than 10,000 small businesses located throughout Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn that were victims of Hurricane Sandy. This is especially fitting as the idea for the tech was born in the wake of that natural disaster.
Preorder customers should receive their devices any day. If you want to buy a pair now, it should arrive before the holidays.