Now and Then, Technology Works

I burn a lot of space in this column carping about things that don't work - everything from bad technology to wrong-headed business plans to vendor hype.

I burn a lot of space in this column carping about things that dont work — everything from bad technology to wrong-headed business plans to vendor hype. Sad to say, most interactive technologies dont work as promised. Software is buggy. Interfaces are ridiculous. Actual time to deployment is . . . well, were still waiting to find out.

But every once in a while, something works so well that my curmudgeonly instincts crumble.

Such is the case with the Sierra Wireless AirCard 400 modem, packaged with Metricoms Ricochet service. I tested the modem for only three weeks, during which time I never left the Eastern seaboard, confining my travels to a stretch from Boston to Washington, D.C. But that short test was enough to convince me that mobile wireless broadband is here — and its been worth the wait.

There are still drawbacks, to be sure. As rapidly as Metricom has been building out its network, the Ricochet service is still available in only 15 of the largest U.S. markets, and two of those — Seattle and Washington, D.C. — offer only 28.8-kilobit-per-second service. But in the other 13 markets and in the nations 26 largest airports, Metricom offers Integrated Services Digital Network-level speeds of 128 Kbps. Unfortunately, since the company filed for Chapter 11 reorganization last week, network expansion is likely to slow.

If area-specific availability is crucial to deciding whether the network makes sense for your work force, the coverage map on Metricoms Web site is less than helpful. Click on Providence, R.I., for example, and youre told: "Ricochet 128 Kbps service is coming soon to this city. Please sign up if youd like to be contacted when service is available." Im kind of fuzzy on "soon." I wouldnt budget a penny for this service right now if Providence or any other city currently not served were crucial to my needs.

Speaking of budgeting, the service is not cheap. At slightly less than $80 per month, its about four times the cost of dial-up service and twice the cost of fixed broadband. Thats probably too rich for most consumers, but I suspect it will seem reasonable to businesses that depend on mobile work forces.

The real beauty of the AirCard 400 is the technology itself. Part of my skepticism about wireless modems stemmed from earlier experiences with AirCard products. The model I tested two years ago — not on the Ricochet network — was a bear to install, conflicted with other software and peripherals, and was wireless without being mobile — you could lose your connection by moving your laptop 3 feet.

This AirCard installed in three minutes, found the network all by itself and ran perfectly as soon as I entered my user name and password. Even better, it never interfered with my other network settings. In fact, it handed control to my 10/100 network interface card whenever I plugged into an Ethernet connection.

I got full connectivity while commuting from central New Jersey to downtown Manhattan and while moving from meeting to meeting in Ziff Davis Medias steel-beamed, multistoried headquarters in New York. On a drive to Boston and a train ride to the nations capital, I moved into and out of several coverage areas, but the modem and service synchronized themselves along the way, so I was sending and receiving e-mail intermittently en route. In essence, as long as my computer was on, I was connected or would be within minutes.

Upon arriving at Interactive Weeks Washington bureau, I was connected and productive, while a colleague was wasting time trying to establish an Ethernet connection. At Newark International Airport, a one-hour flight delay became an uninterrupted, productive 60 minutes without having to drag my bags to a data service, find an available connection, deal with configuration issues and pay handsomely for low-speed access.

No, its not yet a perfect product, but the AirCard 400/Ricochet combo can significantly improve a mobile workers productivity, and its only going to get better as the network expands. Besides, its the only new technology I can remember testing that actually surpassed its billing. I can live with that.