image: Ricochet
Ricochet's external modem. For me it's always worked better than the internal model. Nothing has changed.
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msnbc.com

It’s been a year and a half since the owners of my favorite wireless service pulled the plug on Ricochet - a wireless wide-area network (WAN) that promised 176kbps but really provided speeds rivaling DSL. I’m happy to report that the Ricochet network is now being resurrected by Aerie Networks. And after a weekend back on their network I can proudly say “welcome back”.

InsertArt(1711984)TECHNICALLY, RICOCHET WAS a success. Based on a series of small local transmitters hung from light posts, Ricochet worked in the areas where it was deployed. Think in terms of a private 802.11b wireless Ethernet network indoors, outdoors and everywhere. The problem was that the physical network was expensive to deploy — and the company it charged way too much for their monthly service. That severely limited Ricochet’s success.

At the very end, they began to get it right. Instead of charging $60 a month for unlimited service in any of their markets, when they rolled it out in San Diego they offered $30 a month service limited to within the San Diego region. People flocked to sign up. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. Ricochet went belly up in the spring of 2001.

But the network wasn’t completely dead. When the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on 9/11 so did New York City’s communications sub-structure. City officials were left without many options. Cell phones were useless and wired phone lines were destroyed throughout most of lower Manhattan. Then someone realized that although deactivated, the Ricochet network was still totally intact. So, for nearly three months Ricochet was brought back to life as a closed network for City officials, law enforcement and rescue workers.

I believe that was the turning point for Ricochet. Insiders realized the network still had great value. Enter Denver’s Aerie Networks, who bought some of the old Ricochet’s assets and set about to resurrect it. They’re forging deals with local governments (rather than utilities) to make sure there’s involvement at all levels. And, they’re rolling out the service one market at a time to make sure it’s done right this time around.

As of today, Ricochet is back online in Denver (Aerie’s home town) and just recently San Diego (home of their greatest success). Dallas/Fort Worth is scheduled as the next stop — with other cities slated to go back online in 2003.

Ricochet now costs $44.95 a month for all-you-can-use service. There are two kinds of Ricochet modems - one internal (PC card for laptops) and the other external (connects via USB port for most computers). Both retail for $99 and are supplied by Novatel Wireless. If you sign-up for six months service, they’ll give you the modem for free. Old Ricochet subscribers who still have their modems can subscribe online and get a month’s service free. Sierra Wireless’ cards from the original Ricochet network are not yet supported.

This past weekend I was in Denver, and got a chance to try the service once again. Using my trusty Compaq notebook computer I had major problems with the internal modem. Novatel’s software would only install a Windows NT driver on my Windows XP computer, so every time I tried to insert the PC card my computer would crash. Ricochet’s help desk said they had never heard of a “Type 1” error report and concluded it must be the computer’s fault. But they went above and beyond the call and sent over an external modem for me to try.

I used to run all the computers in my home on an old Ricochet external. I know this device well. But, I ran the Novatel software for this modem - and was told my computer didn’t support USB. So, finally I removed all the software from my computer - plugged-in the modem and turned it on. Fifteen seconds later Windows XP recognized and installed everything perfectly. I entered the proper dial-up numbers and gloriously was back on Ricochet.

The service was much faster than my Denver hotel’s in-room DSL service which cost me $9.99 a day — and it worked flawlessly, as well as I remembered it. Everything clicked into placer (literally) - pages loaded quickly — and I was able to use PPTP to get into MSNBC to get my email and work on a script. A total pleasure.

Unfortunately, my fling with Ricochet was way too short. I wasted a day trying to deal with Novatel software — and had only one full day on the network. But, it brought back memories ... memories of a time when I could be doing work on my laptop not only in my house but basically in a moving car — or on the way to work — anywhere Ricochet’s New York signal reached. The experience only whetted my appetite. I’m now waiting, with baited breath, for Ricochet to come back to New York. Hurry, please!

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