As we stood at the entrance to Brooklyn's Prospect Park, we stared down at little dots on my phone, each representing Daniela Perdomo's colleagues' locations. Perdomo joked that it's sometimes underwhelming to demo goTenna Mesh: the lightweight, handheld device strapped to my work bag. Her product was transmitting messages to her colleagues from my iPhone, despite my phone being in airplane mode, using meshnet technology.
It's true that, in an area where your phone normally works, sending a message to someone half a mile away isn't particularly thrilling. But when you consider the possibilities that goTenna opens up, and the fact that it's the first consumer-facing, out-of-the-box technology that allows for this type of communication, it starts to get a lot more exciting.
"What we're building is, basically, the ability for people to create bottom-up communications," Perdomo told me. "I think that's really powerful."
Right now, to communicate with anyone on your phone, you need some kind of external signal: either cell coverage or wifi. The message is transmitted across that system network and then to your recipient, even if they're only a few feet away. What meshnet technology allows is for you to communicate with your friend directly, no middle man. And the more people using this same network as you, the bigger your range grows.
The goTenna mesh—which retails for $179 for a pair—pairs to your phone via bluetooth. You then use a goTenna app to connect to other users. It allows you to download maps that you can view in incredible detail even when you have no signal, send a message (including emojis, I checked), a location, or send a shout: a public message sent to any goTenna user in the area (handy if you're, say, stranded on a mountain).
The range depends on your location (denser areas like cities limit your range) and the number of goTenna users near you. If your friend is 10 miles away, but there are a few strangers using the device between you two, your message can silently "hop" from those strangers to reach your pal.
A lot of the startup's early adopters are adventure seekers or travelers: people who frequent locations where cell service can be spotty at best, and want to be able to stay in touch.
It's also a useful tool for emergency situations: goTenna partnered with the City of New York to distribute the first generation version to areas that were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which knocked out communications for huge swaths of the city at a time when we needed it most.
But the technology could have even bigger implications, depending on how it's adopted. When thousands of pro-democracy protesters demonstrated in Hong Kong in 2014, the government purposely knocked out cell phone coverage. The protesters relied on FireChat, which uses bluetooth to communicate. That incident was an early case study of how this easy-to-use device could be adopted to let political movements build their own encrypted, reliable peer-to-peer network.
It could also be a handy tool for enabling rural communities to expand their internet. You'd still need an internet connection, but a mesh network made up of goTennas or similar devices could help expand that network.
There are still limits to the technology: goTenna can only relay through about four hops before it's unable to reach someone, and mesh networks in general tend to struggle when too many people are connected, according to Brian Hall of NYC Mesh—a local organization that builds neighborhood internet mesh networks.
"You can't really have a pure mesh network with more than 30 devices," Hall said. "A pure mesh network won't scale up to a city size, but it's one piece of the puzzle."
However, Perdomo told me goTenna mesh is able to get around these limitations, leaving the door open for lots of new innovation.
"We focus on short-burst, asynchronous data we don't have the same scaling issues that a high-bandwidth, persistent wifi mesh network does," she said. "This is part of why goTenna Mesh is so special."
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8/10/17: This story has been updated to include an additional quote from Perdomo.