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March 04, 2016

GoTenna Raises Cash, Nets Launch With REI

Remember the tragedy that took place at the Boston Marathon? Not surprisingly, after that took place, the mobile networks in the region were overloaded as people tried frantically to call loved ones and make sure they were unhurt—or reasonably so—following the explosions. That led even Verizon to say that, while it was “enhancing network voice capability” in the area, it also encouraged callers to use text messages instead, as these use a lot less bandwidth. Now imagine a text messaging service that uses no bandwidth, and that's at least some of the idea behind goTenna.

Using a small device connecting to Bluetooth technology, goTenna turn allows users to send text messages to other goTenna devices using radio waves. Throw in pre-downloaded maps, and it becomes possible to not only text message, but also share a user's location, even without a working cell connection of any sort. That makes it tailor-made for those who spend a lot of time out in the wilderness or away from a cell signal.

A recently concluded Series A fundraising round netted the company $7.5 million, led by Walden Venture Capital, and REI recently came on board as the exclusive retail launch point for the tool. Given that REI's focus is on outdoor equipment, that could well be a masterstroke, if a bit limiting at first. If goTenna had to pick just one partner, REI probably would have topped the short list. With the new funding in place, goTenna plans to expand its operations, bringing in fresh marketing firepower and augmenting product development with software and firmware updates. A pair of goTenna devices will cost $199 at retail, and users can buy through REI or goTenna directly.

This is a great idea, but I find myself wondering if it has a shelf life too short to bother with. While it certainly is great in places without a cell signal—or in the case of the leading example where the cell signal is overwhelmed or needs to be freed up for emergency situations—it's worth asking if this will really be a problem much longer. If Google's Project Skybender goes as far as it might, it might well cover the entire world with a 5G signal. Overwhelming a network like that would be next to impossible; should something go wrong, a couple extra drones could be dispatched to provide extra bandwidth. Given that commercial 5G won't likely see markets until at least 2020 by some figures—let alone build out significantly enough to overwhelm goTenna's market—that's a good long while for goTenna to build a market.

In the short term, goTenna has a great value proposition, and one that will likely be welcome for workers in the field, remote locations, or vacationers going similarly remote. Its long term prospects, however, might be a little less than optimal.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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