I'm a big fan of "cafe computing." I don't mean going to a cybercafe, where the coffee-stained hardware is already there and waiting, or a trendy coffee mega-chain where an open laptop advertises pseudo-geek chic. I'm talking about sitting in my favorite coffee house with my PowerBook and doing a little writing. Since I spend most of my days in front of a computer screen, it's nice to change the walls and atmosphere around it.
So, when I heard about Metricom's Ricochet Wireless Modem, I was excited. Liberated from telephone jacks and cords, I could spend all day at the coffee house, sending and receiving email, searching the Web, even dialing the server at work via Apple Remote Access. Had I stumbled upon Utopia? Well, almost.
Get Unwired -- The Ricochet modem is a small, black, rectangular device weighing 13 ounces, with a cord that plugs into the Mac's serial port. The cord is only about six inches long, so you don't have to worry about dangling wire. If you use the Ricochet on a desktop machine, I suggest buying the optional 10-foot cable. You can mount the unit on your PowerBook cover with the included velcro pads, but since I'm the type who gets nervous about bumper stickers on my car, I left the velcro in the package. The kit also comes with an AC adapter; two disks with the Ricochet software, MacPPP, and Netscape Navigator 2.0; plus a manual.
For a $29.95 monthly fee (the Basic Service option), you get unlimited Internet access via Metricom's Ricochet servers and a POP email account. Renting the modem costs $12.50 per month on top of that, or you can buy the unit for either $299 (with a 12 month service agreement) or $599 (if you want the modem, but not the Internet access, to communicate wireless on a Ricochet-enabled Intranet or LAN, or even in the same room with others with Ricochets). You can also opt for a rent-to-own agreement at $25 per month. I chose the basic modem rental, since the Ricochet is bound to get smaller and lighter over time. Additional fees give you additional services: the Preferred option includes Telephone Modem Access (TMA), allowing you to dial into services accessible only via telephone number (such as other ISPs and bulletin board services). The Elite option includes a cc:Mail account and software (substituted for POP email), TMA, dial-in capability to retrieve mail outside the Ricochet coverage area, and outbound fax capability (at the unusually high cost of 50 cents per page).
The biggest limitation of the Ricochet service is its current coverage area, which is limited to Seattle, most of the San Francisco Bay area, and Washington D.C., although I gather that Metricom is frantically trying to expand coverage to meet demand.
Expanding coverage, however, isn't necessarily simple, requiring a good deal of infrastructure and the cooperation of a given city's government. If you live in one of the cities currently covered, you may notice many street lamps have acquired boxy appendages. Those "microcell radios" grab signals from Ricochet modems and pass them along to other microcells within the license-free (902-928 MHz) portion of the radio frequency spectrum using a technique called frequency hopping. The radio packets are eventually routed to a Wired Access Point (WAP), which transmits them to Ricochet's servers via a T1 connection. Microcells are spaced roughly one-quarter to one-half mile apart in a checkerboard pattern, mounted on street lamps and utility poles. Installing these units requires city approval, which in most cases is no problem. However, a large chunk of San Francisco, for example, is currently "blacked out" due to pending approval.
Using the Ricochet -- Installing the software was surprisingly easy. Although I backed up my TCP/IP settings first, the Ricochet installer made my preparations seem like overkill: the TCP/IP information was stored as a new TCP/IP configuration and made active. After a restart, I was ready to go.
The Ricochet's power switch is on the side of the unit, requiring you to rotate the antenna out of the way to power up the modem - a nice touch that largely avoids accidentally turning it on and draining the battery. The switch has three settings: off, on/silent, and on/audible. If you're used to the R2-D2-on-acid electronic screech of most modems, the polite chirp of the Ricochet will be a welcome change. After activation, a red light case flashes to indicate the Ricochet is searching for the signal from a nearby microcell; when the light flashes green, you're ready to dial up using PPP; when you're connected, the light flashes yellow.
Once connected, the Internet experience is similar to wire-based connections. Metricom broadly (and wisely) claims that the Ricochet will operate between 14.4 Kbps and 28.8 Kbps - not lightning-fast, but good compared to cellular phone/modem connections. People who need Internet access while away from the office would benefit by using the Ricochet, regardless of the speed. I found the speed hovering closer to the low range, depending on my location. The manual recommends operating the unit outside or near a window, and away from objects that could cause interference, such as stereo speakers.
The Ricochet's battery lasted between four and six hours, as promised, which was fine. I unexpectedly ran out of juice on only a couple of occasions before discovering a tip on Metricom's Web site: you can put the modem to sleep by running a terminal program such as Zterm and typing "ATS327=3". You can set the time of inactivity before sleep by typing "ATS326=x" (x being the number of minutes; the default is 10).
Wild, Wireless Ways -- After using the Ricochet for a few hours, I had completely adjusted to the notion of wireless computing. Suddenly, the idea of messing around with phone companies and wired access seemed outdated and antiquated. Certainly, wireless Internet access is the way access ought to be, although I'm sure it will years before we look back and laugh at our reliance on land-line connections. In the meantime, users who require mobile Internet access will find the Ricochet an invaluable addition to the growing arsenal of portable-computing products.
Ironically, although I enjoyed using the Ricochet, I'm compelled to mentioned that it no longer travels with me. One of the main reasons I got it was to serve as a second phone line both at work and at home, with the added bonus of using it in the coffee house. But because the speed was consistently slow in my home (and since the people in my office are installing an ISDN line) I opted for the slightly cheaper route and put a second phone line into my apartment. Frankly, $42.50 per month was a bit of a luxury, so I took the Richochet back. However, I'm still an advocate of cafe computing, and I won't think twice about getting one in the future. For now I'll be content to envy the other people with Ricochets in my favorite coffee house.