No Strings Attached

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.

My tests focused on Ricochet's No. 1 selling point: its data-transmission speeds. I used my laptop's USB port because Ricochet speeds using the serial port are limited to about 80 Kbps.

Measuring transmission speeds is a tricky affair, with plenty of variables capable of affecting test results. But several data-clocking tools available on the Internet showed Ricochet capable of download speeds up to 233 Kbps. Its slowest download speed was 48 Kbps--about the same as a standard modem. Upload, or sending, speeds ranged from 7.6 Kbps to 105 Kbps.

My best speeds came when I was at my home in northern San Diego County, near a single antenna installed on a neighborhood street light. The service yielded the lowest speeds from the depths of my office building in downtown Los Angeles and while I was moving in a car or train.

On the train, the signal stayed with me between Irvine and Los Angeles, although loading Web pages with lots of pictures was slow at times.

In a driving test, I put my laptop on the passenger seat, tuned to an Internet radio station and listened to the live broadcast. There were a few drops and sound blips, but Ricochet handled the streaming audio well most of the time.

One final note on performance: In several situations, Ricochet caused interference with other devices. At my home, the display on my desktop monitor wavered in protest until I moved the Ricochet modem farther away, and my hotel room television started to buzz when the modem was working.

Ricochet's followers, however, are unfazed by the foibles of the service.

McGann, the Realtor in Laguna Hills, deals with coverage issues by plotting out the locations of Ricochet antennas and planting herself near one whenever possible to get the fastest connections. She has a list of Starbucks coffee shops located near an antenna.

The high speed of the connection has allowed McGann to tackle such bandwidth-intensive activities as submitting photos of homes to the Multiple Listings Service. She used to use a photo service, which took several days. Now, using a digital camera, McGann takes the photos, selects the ones she likes and immediately submits them herself.

McGann still uses her cell phone, but only in a pinch. She now spends most of her time using Ricochet, communicating with escrow agents and clients through e-mail and instant messaging.

She even uses it to talk to her husband, who works for the military on Coronado Island, off the coast of San Diego. Both use Ricochet, plus Yahoo instant messaging, to keep in touch.

"We used to spend all kinds of money calling to say hi or whatever, but now we can do voice chats back and forth for free," McGann said.

Even the relatively high cost of the service has not kept away those wanting to be on the cutting edge of the Internet.

Charlie Cox, an electrical engineering major at Cal State Northridge, said that Ricochet's monthly fee is a minor expense to be able to live and breath the Net.

"This technology is too powerful. . . . You can't dismiss it," he said. "I'm paying $75 a month for this service, and I'm a student."

Cox has cable-modem service at home but often uses Ricochet so he can lounge on a couch while on the Internet.

"I use it for Napster, uploading pictures, having six browsers open at the same time, and ICQ [instant messaging] running in the background," Cox said.

"I use it all the time," he said. "I could live without it, but why should I?"

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Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass covers wireless technologies.

Inside

* A graphic look at the Ricochet process. T10

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Ricochet Wireless Internet

What is it?

A wireless network for high-speed Internet access, providing fast connections while on the move.

How does it work?

Packets of data are sent via radio modem from a computer or compatible hand-held device to a nearby antenna that forwards the information to Ricochet servers and then on to the Internet.

Where does it work?

Ricochet's 128-Kbps service is available in 13 areas: Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. Service is also available in Seattle and Washington, D.C., at 28.8 Kbps.

What do you need?

1. A laptop or personal computer with Windows 98 or Windows 2000 plus a Pentium II 300-MHz processor with 64 MB of RAM or better. Apple computers must have Mac OS 9.0, plus PowerPC G3 or G4 chip with 64 MB of RAM. It also works with several hand-held devices, including Compaq's iPaq.

2. Ricochet modem or PC card, plus a short USB or serial cable--all provided upon sign-up.

3. Available USB or serial port, or an available PC card slot.

Who sells the service?

GoAmerica, EarthLink, Juno Online, Wireless WebConnect, WorldCom (including through Skytel and UUNet).

How much does it cost?

The necessary modem costs from $99 to $199; the service costs from $75 to $80 per month. Substituting a Ricochet PC card (instead of separate modem) costs $299. Special promotions vary, with some lowering the monthly fee to $50 for a limited time.

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Source: Metricom

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