The Ricochet Wireless Modem (a Review)

Since my company is moving to a new office, I’ve been calling around trying to find an Internet provider. In Manhattan these days, you have a zillion choices. It seems like every Internet provider in the known universe offers service in Manhattan.

We’re probably going to get a T1 line from Savvis. Getting a T1 installed takes a couple of months, and we were worrying about what to do while we wait. ISDN and DSL are nightmares to install and take just as long to get installed. In desperation I was considering a dedicated dial up service, which is usually expensive as hell (something like $100 – $150 per month) and slow (modem speed). Or maybe a bonded modem service, where you use two modems and some expensive equipment to get double modem speed (realistically, that would be about 80kbps).

Then I found Juno Express, a service provided by my alma matter (I worked at Juno until about a year ago). It’s a wireless modem that runs at 128kbps. The service and modem are actually provided by Ricochet, which is really another name for Metricom. The one thing about the new economy is that nobody wants to get their hands dirty. Juno doesn’t want to get their hands dirty with messy hardware and infrastructure, and Metricom doesn’t want to get their hands dirty with customer service and billing (“ew”), and in fact, Juno even outsources their customer service to a company in Canada which answers the phone.

Anyway, I called Juno and ordered Juno Express Wireless. They will sell you a modem for $99, and the monthly service is $80 for unlimited usage. This is a fantastic deal if you’ve ever priced wireless Internet access in the past. (I remember when it was $25 per megabyte, not so long ago, for download speeds around 9.6kbps.)

The first Ricochet modems ran at 28.8 kbps. They are now transitioning over to a new technology that provides 128kbps, which is what I’m using. Wow! That’s dual channel ISDN speed! The trick is that the high speeds are only available in a few places. Luckily, Manhattan is one. Metrocom has been installing small shoebox-sized transmitters on light poles throughout Manhattan, since the technology they are using doesn’t have very long range (the cells aren’t nearly as large or as strong as typical cell-phone cells).

The modem itself is the size of a small paperback book, with a little antenna that folds out. It connects to your laptop computer via a USB port. (It can use a serial port, but the speed is slower if you do that). It has its own battery that runs for 6 hours so it doesn’t have to suck up your laptop’s battery. Yes, it’s really 6 hours… I ran it down today.

Installation was almost easy. Once I got everything set up, Juno was still giving me weird error messages. Luckily I remembered, from my time as a programmer at Juno, that the Juno system requires you to check your mail at least once when any features of your account change so that the Juno servers can update the client with your new service information. I think that if I didn’t have this “inside information” I would have been pretty frustrated, and I would have had to call Juno tech support. Anyway, by checking my Juno email once using my home DSL connection, everything was fixed up and I was able to start using Ricochet successfully.

My apartment is in the back of a big, brick brownstone in a dense part of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. So the signal wasn’t very strong. The maps on Ricochet’s site implied that they have more transmitters in midtown anyway. At home, the service was very bursty. When it worked, it was fast, but a lot of the time, it was super-slow (like 14.4 modem speed). This doesn’t surprise me or bother me very much… I can barely get cellular reception from behind all the masonry on my block.

So I took the modem out to a local cafe on Broadway and 70th, near a major avenue, and tried it from there. Tada! This is how it was meant to work. This thing is fast. You do get 128 kbps, sometimes more. I tried a whole bunch of the various line-speed-tests around the Internet, like C|net‘s. These tests are shockingly unscientific, since there are so many other things that can slow down a connection between your machine and the server where they are running, but I did get results between 70 kbps and 180 kbps. Nice! The overall feel of the thing is great. While I’ve been writing this article, I’ve been uploading pictures, sending email, browsing the web, and some people have emailed me some really huge attachments which I’ve forwarded on… the overall speed is great, much much faster than a “56kbps” modem which usually gets you more like 40 kbps. And it’s wireless! And it’s easy to install! And it only took two days from placing an order to being online! (They must have shipped the modem the day I called).

I also tried the service from a friend’s house around the corner; it works at around 128kbps there, too. Slick.

Now, $80 a month may sound like a lot for a home user. But for our small office of five people, for a temporary solution while we wait for the T1, it’s going to be great. And for working as consultants, where we’re all over the city working at clients’ sites, working from cafes and libraries, etc., it will also be great; I’m thinking of equipping my entire team with these so we don’t have to rely on clients’ Internet connections.

There are two things I would change. First, I wish there was a capability to attach a big antenna when you want to have a fixed installation with better reception. Maybe that’s an FCC restriction?

I also wish it gave you some idea of the signal strength as you moved the antenna around so you could adjust it for optimal reception. There is no way to tell which way to wiggle the antenna.

Note: Someone on the Yahoo message boards has since informed me that you can check the signal strength by pressing in the power slide switch, which gives you from 1 – 4 beeps indicating signal strength. Totally non-obvious and not in the documentation, but it seems to work!

Another big problem is the coverage. This thing works in the downtown areas of 10 cities. But in the past couple of years, the places where I want wireless access are not downtowns. Maybe I’m staying with a friend and don’t want to tie up their modem. Or I’m at the beach. Last year I was in the middle of the Navajo reservation and I needed Internet access. I suspect Ricochet ain’t never gonna have base stations in the middle of the Navajo reservation.

August 2, 2001: Ricochet Closes Down. They spent $500,000,000 and went out of business owing almost a billion dollars, with 51,000 subscribers. They would have had to make about $30,000 per subscriber for the business idea to have worked.

About the author.

I'm Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.