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No Strings Attached

New service lets wireless users ricochet around the Web at high speed. To them, mobility is worth the cost.

March 15, 2001|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

Sitting in the comfort of the Elephant Bar & Restaurant in Laguna Hills, DeeDee McGann is fast at work snipping the clumsy umbilical cord that has long tied her to an office desk.

McGann, an Orange County real estate agent, is one of a group of people who have begun using high-speed, wireless Internet access--a technology that pundits have hailed

for years as the nirvana of connectivity.

With a new service called Ricochet from Metricom Inc., McGann can wirelessly read her e-mail, surf the Web and move files between computers all while on the move.

"It's helped me increase my service to my clients tenfold," McGann said. "If they want to know something, like what's the property tax on a house, Ricochet gives me direct access to all the information, wherever I am, so I can give it to my clients right then and there."

The wireless Web has finally arrived, and, for the cadre of users willing to pay the premium fee of $75 to $80 a month, it is gradually changing their lives.

The modern world has constructed itself around a dense web of copper wires and fiber optics. Now, the development of wireless technologies has begun to dissolve that world and replace it with a new mesh built of radio waves.

The wireless system from Ricochet, while promising speeds up to 128 kilobits per second, can actually fly at up to 240 Kbps under optimal conditions--about five times faster than a standard wired modem. By comparison, today's Internet-enabled mobile phones and hand-held computers work at a snail's pace, offering users peak speeds ranging from 9.6 Kbps to 19.2 Kbps.

McGann said the speed and mobility of Ricochet has so thoroughly changed the way she works that methods she employed just eight months ago already seem Stone Age.

"If I'm the buying agent, I need to be there first and I need my clients to be there first so they can get that property. . . . This market is just way too hot to wait," McGann said. "I think Ricochet gives me a competitive edge. I can check the Multiple Listings three, four or five times a day. I can type up a purchase proposal and e-mail it directly to the other agent."

McGann still has a physical office, but its importance has diminished as the combination of Ricochet and a laptop computer has made McGann more autonomous. "Now I'm always at my office, because my office goes with me wherever I go," she said.

In the real estate business, where commissions rule and time is money, it's easy to see the attraction. Others, however, see the prospect of a mobile Internet and mobile office as an encroachment on the already-shortened intervals of private, nonwork time.

There also are several technological quirks to the system--some so subtle that you have to use it for a while to uncover them.

To get a closer look at Ricochet, I tried out the system myself for a month. Ricochet is hugely appealing, mainly because it's available in the here and now and because it can provide speedy connections where wires aren't an option.

The caveats: Ricochet is relatively expensive and its availability is limited to a short list of U.S. cities. What's more, the company behind Ricochet, Metricom, is precariously low on funding.

Still, the chance to live untethered is a tantalizing prospect.

"Once you start using wireless data, it's almost addictive," said Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group, a corporate advisor on wireless projects. "Eventually it's going to be very powerful. . . . It will become as necessary as the cell phone."

The heart of the Ricochet network is a blanket of shoe-box-size antennas on utility poles or street lights--at a density of at least five antennas per square mile.

Creating the network has been enormously costly. Metricom first introduced Ricochet in three cities at 28.8 Kbps. Last summer, it launched its higher 128-Kbps service in 13 areas--including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Dallas.

Metricom has big-time backers, including WorldCom and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures, but its cash is running out fast. The company lost $114.4 million in the fourth quarter, and it has scaled back expansion.

At the end of 2000, Ricochet had drawn a mere 34,000 subscribers nationwide. Analysts say the service has been slow to take off because of delays in getting the network built out in major cities and the relatively high price compared with nonmobile services through cable modems and digital subscriber lines, both costing $40 to $50 per month.

For all its advanced technology, the system is a breeze to install--often easier than its broadband cousins, cable and DSL.

Getting started requires installing the Ricochet software and the wireless modem, a sturdy 10-ounce box slightly larger than a Palm device that connects to a computer through a serial or Universal Serial Bus port. (For about $300, subscribers can skip the boxy modem and buy a Ricochet PC card instead.) A connection is launched by clicking on a Ricochet icon, then entering a user name and password.

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