Metricoms Ricochet: The Laptop RF Answer

We remember hearing about Metricom in 1993 when it was out near Stanford University.

We remember hearing about Metricom in 1993 when it was out near Stanford University. Here were these little pole-top radios, placed along El Camino Real every quarter-mile or so. The idea was to bring wireless connectivity to laptops all along the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. Who would ever need that?

Fast-forward to 2001 when, according to Metricom, about 40,000 people do. While the number is hardly staggering, Metricoms Ricochet service has been marketed to people who require full Internet access while theyre mobile. Does it work? Absolutely. Weve used it on several laptops for a number of months now without a single hiccup.

Ricochet has come a long way since its initial release. Maximum speed was 9.6Kbps; now its up to 128Kbps. The original walkie-talkie radio modems are now the size of a deck of cards. They can be connected to your laptop serially or via USB. Dont want the hassle of a separate unit? Several PC card radio modems are available.

Despite all of the improvements, the service still has a ways to go. The biggest challenge is to increase the size of the subscriber base. Metricom has an active reseller partner program with the likes of WorldCom and Compaq signed up, and its looking for additional partners.

Another obstacle is the ongoing cost of building out the mesh network infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the Ricochet service. As weve mentioned previously, the service uses spectrum in the 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 2.3GHz frequencies. The radio modem on the laptop or PDA device connects to the pole-top radios at 900MHz. The pole-top radios (about five per square mile) talk with each other at 900MHz and 2.3GHz, and with the wired access points (where the signals hit conventional wired infrastructure) at all three frequencies.

Metricom has built out this infrastructure on its own in 15 metropolitan areas of the United States and at a few airports. As you might guess, its been expensive. A 46-city rollout of the service this year has partially taken place, Los Angeles being the most recent addition. The trouble is, the rollout is now on hold, as the company attempts to conserve as much cash as possible.

Metricom is in danger of running out of money. The company reported revenues of $11.8 million and a net loss of $245.4 million during 2000—and the red ink continues to flow. Now, with its Ricochet Dial-Out Service, its marketing itself heavily for business customers on the go; but will that be enough? Keep your eyes open here.

Financial news aside, Ricochet works darned well whether youre stationary or moving (in our case, backed up in traffic on U.S. 101). As long as youre in a coverage area, if youve got to have connectivity when youre mobile and the cell-phone connection just isnt cutting it, for about $75 a month, the Ricochet service cant be beat.