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-- by James E. Powell
Imagine the Internet at your fingertips ... even when you leave your home or office. If you live in Washington, D.C., San Francisco or Seattle, you can have portable, continuous Internet connections.
Metricom's wireless Ricochet modem, which weighs 13 ounces and is about the size of a large VCR remote control, delivers the Internet to your laptop or desktop whether you're near a phone jack or not.
Following the Windows 95 installation guide, a well-crafted manual that includes a screenshot for every key step, the Ricochet installs in minutes. (There's a similar kit for Windows 3.1x.) You simply connect the 12-inch cable from your Ricochet to the computer's serial port, swing the antenna into an up position, turn the modem on and wait for it to blink green (indicating it has found a signal). You run the setup software to install the modem driver and Netscape Navigator (sadly, version 2.02 is what you get, but you can upgrade later). Setup adds a program group with icons for Step 1 (dial the Ricochet service) and Step 2 (launch Netscape)
The Ricochet network and modem communicate using spread-spectrum, packet radio technology. Small radio receivers, called microcells (about the size of a shoe box), are mounted to street lights and utility poles in a grid layout every quarter- to half-mile throughout a service area. Wired access points within a 20-square-mile radius convert the RF packets to the wired IP network backbone across T1 frame-relay connection, in much the same way as it's currently done in the traditional dial-up ISP service. The modem transmits its packets of data to the closest microcell using one of 162 frequency channels, hopping between channels for greater security.
In tests, it took less than 12 seconds to dial, connect and be verified by the Ricochet service. Since it lacks traditional send- and receive-data LEDs, it will take time for you to get used to the Ricochet. When a connection's active, the Ricochet LED simply turns yellow. You can choose to operate the modem with sounds (such as a beep when the connection is made) or in Silent mode.
You can use any Winsock-compliant browser or mail software. We also tried it out with betas of the latest Netscape browser, Communicator, and Internet Explorer 3.01. Ricochet's Internet availability was unparalleled-never a busy signal, and it stayed connected as long as needed, using the 6-hour nickel metal hydride battery or the AC adapter when recharging the battery.
The Ricochet successfully maintained an online connection for hours at a time, which could easily become addictive. Start your day by launching the service, then keep it running. Like users with constant Internet access via a LAN, you don't have to dial in, launch a browser and log out. With the Ricochet, you can check e-mail while waiting at the doctor's office.
Ricochet requires a one-time $45 activation fee; the modem sells for $299 or rents for $12.50 a month. A $29.95 monthly service fee includes unlimited Internet access and an e-mail account; for $5 more each month you can add telephone access to use the Ricochet for dialing a local telephone number (for example, BBS access). You can send faxes and retrieve e-mail from outside the Ricochet coverage area using a cc:Mail account (replacing your POP3 Internet mail account) for an additional $10 a month.
Although Ricochet is available only in three metropolitan areas, at 15 colleges and on several corporate campuses, service in greater Los Angeles is promised this year. You can take your laptop and Ricochet to San Francisco, for example, and use it without making any setup changes or knowing a local access number. Furthermore, if you're in Seattle and use the Ricochet to connect to a BBS in Washington, D.C., you're not charged for a long distance call. To Ricochet, every call is local.
Metricom won't reveal plans for future coverage areas for competitive reasons; it also has to secure agreements with a patchwork of government agencies and utilities before it can install receivers in an area. Even so, coverage within the Seattle area covered most of the metropolitan region.
While Ricochet offers freedom, you have to be fairly stationary while you're using it. Moving it around on your desktop won't disconnect you, but don't expect to use it on a bus or in your car. Currently, transmission speed is limited to 28.8Kb per second. Also, you'll want to be near a window to use the modem. If you can receive a high-quality radio reception, you should be able to use this as well.
The Ricochet modem is a well-designed product, and the service lives up to its promises. With the potential for Internet access anywhere you go, Ricochet is on target and a welcome addition to our WinList of recommended products.