An Epitaph for Ricochet

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Date: Thursday, August 2nd, 2001, 14:07
Category: Archive

The network was named for the way data packets rocketed through the air from poletop radios to wired access points, then into the wired Internet, freeing laptop and PDA users from wires and providing fast connection speed. It was and still is the fastest mobile wireless data network available anywhere.


The network was named for the way data packets rocketed through the air from poletop radios to wired access points, then into the wired Internet, freeing laptop and PDA users from wires and providing fast connection speed. It was and still is the fastest mobile wireless data network available anywhere.

Most people don’t realize that Metricom, the company that invented the Ricochet network has been around for 15 years. Founded in 1985, Metricom originally built Utilinet, still used by CalTrans and Schlumberger to monitor telemetry from field data units. In 1995, the company saw the upcoming need for wireless Internet connectivity and introduced the first generation of Ricochet wireless service in the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and Washington D.C.

Ricochet was an enabling technology, like the first wireless phones. The first generation Ricochet technology blew my socks off when I first saw it in 1996. A stodgy radio modem, attached to a PowerBook 1400, grabbing e-mail and web pages at a then-speedy 28.8kbps – about 2/3 as fast as a regular landline. In the days before DSL and 802.11, walking around the house or even around town with a fast Internet connection was nothing short of breathtaking.

Fast forward to 1999. Running short of cash and with little over 30,000 subscribers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Areas, Vulcan Ventures and WorldCom stepped in with a $600 million investment in Metricom to deploy the new Ricochet2 technology around the U.S.

It looked like the next technical panacea. 128kbps wireless Internet access, ultimately available in 46 large American cities. Freedom from PacBell’s DSL installation and provisioning hassles. Freedom from the office for the mobile or traveling tech worker.

I joined the company in January of 2000 as a Senior Technical Writer. I was also the Macintosh advocate – getting proper Mac instructions in the Quick Start Guide, helping the Windows-centric developers understand the ”Macintosh Way”. Judging from the feedback, our Mac installer blew everyone’s socks off. Look at the User’s Guide – 34 pages of various tips and tricks for installing to varying flavors of Windows, 2 pages of Mac instructions!

Something went wrong. I won’t editorialize, but I will touch on a couple of the points brought up by some tech industry columnists.

*Pricing – The $80.00 month just turned people off. Too much to pay for the luxury of Internet anywhere anytime.

While $80.00 per month for always-on nationwide Internet access sounded high to most, try downloading a 10MB file with a 9.6 or 14.4 cell phone connection, then check your bill. Even with lots of included data minutes, the costs add up fast. Problem was, Metricom never seemed to want to communicate this to anyone.

Late in the game, a 64kbps $39.00 service was introduced along with a Local 128kbps service for the same price. Although these promotions proved wildly successful (in San Diego the 128kbps local service lured 1000% more subscribers. Yes, ten times more subscribers!), they were introduced too late to make a difference and were never marketed in all coverage areas.

*Coverage – While Ricochet eventually covered over 40 million people, the network’s big strength (spectrum reuse through microcellular architecture) was also a deployment disadvantage. Coverage might be good on one block and bad on another. Wired Access Points, necessary to the system, were slow to deploy, so many users complained early on about speeds. In a fully-built network, real world speeds averaged well over 150kbps – consistently and even while loaded.

*Devices – Ricochet 128k was initially available only as an external USB or serial modem. While not overly obtrusive, it certainly didn’t have the design flair of a nice laptop, and looked out of place hulking on the back of a brand new and svelte PowerBook or ThinkPad. Novatel Wireless introduced the Merlin PC card modem that made Ricochet a reality for iPaq users and a convenience for PowerBook mavens. Trouble is, it didn’t ship until almost six months after the first network light-up in San Diego.

*Marketing – Ricochet was not sold directly by Metricom until Spring of 2001. Until then, Metricom relied on ‘Reseller Partners’ to sell the service. Only problem is, they didn’t seem to be interested in selling.

The partner that was perhaps most able to provide subscribers in the target market for Ricochet – WorldCom – never produced more than 5000 subscribers according to papers filed in the bankruptcy court. Tiny Wireless Web Connect! was able to out sell the telecom behemoth 8:1.

*Senior Business Management – I can’t be too critical in this forum given my status as a former employee, but I’m highly skeptical of Executive management’s skill and intentions.

Metricom will cease operation of the Ricochet network in stages, but service will be generally unavailable after August 2, 2001. The company will be available in whole or in part at auction on August 16. The white poletop radios will be left in place and put to ‘sleep’ with a network command program.

Let’s hope some enterprising company buys the assets and uses all the background technical documentation I wrote along with other members of ”TechPubs” to raise this promising technology from the ashes. It’s either that or wait for 3G, which is universally late, slow, and as we all know, will be charged by the minute.

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