Our telecommunications services are dominated by big businesses, which, in some areas, operate as near-monopolies. This is because our phone and internet services rely on massive, complex, and expensive infrastructure. New businesses can often never seriously challenge major established competitors, because they can’t afford to build their own infrastructure. Instead, budget services often rent low-priority bandwidth from networks owned by larger competitors. This, more than any other factor, is what makes the success of GoTenna, founded by Daniela and Jorge Perdomo, so remarkable.

GoTenna allows cellphone users to communicate without the use of traditional cell phone towers. Instead, they rely on a peer-to-peer mesh-network. While the company was founded in 2012, it has recently caught the attention of investors as well as governments who recognise the potential of the emerging technology. After previously raising over $17 million, GoTenna upped the ante in 2019, raising $24 million through a combination of investment and debt financing from Comcast Ventures, Union Square Ventures, Collaborative Fund, Walden VC, MentorTech, and Bloomberg Beta, and Silicon Valley Bank.

Early career

While entrepreneurs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, many draw on that background to facilitate their success later in life. Daniela Perdomo grew up in Sao Paulo, and started her career outside the tech sector, as a community organiser focused on homelessness and immigrants’ rights. She followed this with a stint as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, before moving on to San Francisco to work in a variety of tech startups. The unique combination of these experiences, while seemingly unrelated, ultimately enabled her to succeed as an entrepreneur

Founding GoTenna

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy knocked out much of the communications network in New York City, where Perdomo was living at the time. While everyone waited for services to be restored, Daniela Perdomo considered the problem at hand. A simple weather event had transformed her cell phone, an incredibly sophisticated communication device, into a paperweight. In ordinary times, that would be an annoying inconvenience, however during and after a hurricane it might prevent people from contacting emergency services or loved ones when they need to most.

Perdomo recognised the problem, and soon came up with an innovative solution. Smartphones are versatile devices, and are designed to work with other devices as needed. If connected to a radio transmitter/receiver “node” via bluetooth, a cell phone can easily communicate with other such nodes and anyone connected to them. More importantly, these nodes can relay encrypted data onward, creating a massive local area network. This allows it to work independently of any stationary telecommunications infrastructure. Not only does it continue to function when the primary network is down, it allows users to connect with each other when the existing infrastructure is insufficient in the first place.

Providing communications services when people need them most

GoTenna doesn’t currently work to replace existing telecommunications infrastructure. It doesn’t connect users to the internet, and can’t connect people across the globe. Instead, it functions as a back-up, allowing people in the same region to communicate instantly when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Perdomo didn’t originally expect most regular consumers to recognise the potential of her product. As she hoped, though, government entities and consumers in disaster-prone regions, such as hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and Florida in the US, have used GoTenna to great effect.

Looking to the future

While GoTenna hasn’t disrupted the telecommunications industry yet, it has the potential to improve coverage for users while reducing cost. When GoTenna’s mesh network devices were released in 2017, hundreds of thousands of tech-savvy consumers pounced, creating their own permanent nodes, and establishing networks in their areas. While densely populated regions of the US currently have the largest networks, the number of devices in other countries has steadily grown as well. Provided that these mesh networks become dense and widespread enough, there is no reason why they couldn’t eventually be connected to an Internet Service Provider.

A GoTenna node sells for approximately $100 USD, which is no more than many Americans, currently the company’s primary market, pay for cell phone service every month. This makes the company competitive as a backup-communications provider, while providing it with the revenues it needs to grow and continue to develop its product. Perdomo isn’t waiting for the public to purchase their own nodes, though. Instead, she’s working to encourage cell-phone manufacturers to integrate her technology directly into their devices.

What we can learn

Perdomo originally set out to ensure that people had access to instant communications during a disaster, when they would need them most. In solving that problem, she may have changed the game for the telecommunications industry. That’s because, by introducing GoTenna’s mesh networks, she showed that the high barrier to entry to the telecommunications industry could be broken down.

Entrepreneurs constantly innovate to solve novel problems as a way to establish themselves. Perdomo’s experience shows us how solving one problem can provide solutions to other, much larger challenges as well. To do so, we must simply consider the implications of those solutions, and what new options they provide us with.