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|| News Item: Posted 2001-03-30

Look Ma! No Wires!
By Vincent LaForet, The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
Metricom's Ricochet service is a wonderful service which, if the company stays around long enough, could become a standard method of transmitting photographs wirelessly at high speeds, for those within the boundaries of its coverage area.

Many photojournalists today are familiar with the intricacies of transmitting cellularly on deadline - the missed handshakes, dropped signals, and painfully slow transfer rates (or at least they are familiar with running into a business, begging to borrow their only phone line "for a few minutes."

Ricochet offers a high-speed alternative to both cell and landline transmissions - yet with many of the same pitfalls. The network's coverage area is relatively limited and it would be difficult to reliably predict in advance whether or not the location you are planning on transmitting from will provide a strong signal. Therefore you will always need to have a backup plan when using this service.

Metricom is also facing financial difficulties - without additional funding the company will run out of cash by the second half of this year. The company has spent $645.7 million on the expansion of its network - yet only 34,000 customers have signed up for the service (a cost of $18,991 per customer.) The CEO resigned in February, and a new one has since begun to aggressively seek additional funding. More on this later.


It should first be noted that I have tested the service mostly in the New York metropolitan area. I found the service to be incredibly reliable within the boundaries of Manhattan (from East to West 155th street all the way down to South Street) yet highly unreliable within other boroughs - where the system is clearly not up and running at this time. In Manhattan, I was amazed by the consistent coverage - better than any cell provider I have used. If the signal faded, a stronger one was almost always available within a block or two. Good connections always took place on the first or second try and I was not once disconnected while driving up and down Manhattan over a 4-hour period. During that period of time, I was able to download streaming video and audio - with an occasional pause or slow down. Central Park was the only area I found with weak coverage.

(For Sport Shooters: neither Shea Stadium, The U.S. Open site, nor Giants Stadium in New Jersey were within the coverage area - Yankee Stadium was, although the signal did not reach the basement room from which we transmit. The signal at Madison Square Garden is weak - more on that later.) Indoors the signal strength varied greatly depending on what type of building you were in - when you had a weak signal, setting up closer to a window often solved the problem - although not always. Transmitting from your car proved to be a highly dependable way of getting a strong signal.

Recently, I parked my car on 83rd and Riverside Drive in Manhattan, and did a comparison between sending in a series of two photos via cell phone, versus Ricochet, here is what I found:

Using the cell modem (12 minutes, 38 sec.): It takes 40 seconds alone to establish a connection between the cell phone and the office, on this try, it took two attempts and therefore over a minute and a-half to get a connection [not uncommon.] The first 422k file took 4 minutes and 47 seconds to transmit via cell phone, and the second 392K file 5 minutes and 3 seconds. The overall time it took me to make a connection and send just two pictures via cell phone was 12 minutes 38 seconds. This is about average and with a strong cell signal - times can triple with a bad connection.

Using the Ricochet modem (less than 2 minutes.): It takes 9 seconds to connect to the Internet via Apple's Remote Access. It then took me 23 seconds to log into our secure servers via Secure ID (The New York Times uses special service, which requires a continually changing password to access the network externally.)

The same two files as above took 38seconds and 39 seconds respectively to transmit via FTP - the entire process took 1minute 58 seconds flat - a more than 6X gain in efficiency. Therefore I could have spent 10 more minutes shooting the pictures on deadline, or sent a greater variety - that's the ultimate and obvious advantage of Ricochet.

Using a regular phone line (a little more than 6 minutes.) Once a modem connection was made (10-20 seconds) each file took an average of 2 minutes and 30 seconds to send on a good line at a variety of locations via Zterm or FTP.

I was also able to log into our servers from my car, check that the files had landed into our system properly and discuss them with editors - without leaving the site of the assignment. I drove away from the assignment within five minutes of transmitting the first pictures - confident that everyone was happy. (The 128 kbps was fast enough for me to surf the photo wires and send/receive e-mail while the pictures were transmitting.

At 128 kpbs I downloaded a 1 MB file in 40 seconds. An important note: you can only download at 128 kbps - upload speeds, or transmitting pictures, are half as fast for some reason. Yet still about 2-4 times faster than phone lines.)

A second example involves a recent assignment for The Times. I took a trip with a reporter from Washington DC to New York via Amtrak's Acela train, while others took the trip via air and I-95. During the smooth trip up (train is definitely the way to go!) The Times reporter Randy Kennedy thought it might be interesting to mention in his article that I had transmitted photographs from the train before anyone else had a chance to arrive to New York. My cell phone could not hold a cell signal long enough as we were moving at over 100 mph. and jumping from cell tower to cell tower. So after 28 frustrating minutes, I tried the Ricochet service as we neared Philadelphia - in less than 18 seconds a 200K file landed on our servers in New York. We were moving at approximately 60 mph in the Philadelphia area, which also helped. While Ricochet claims that you can transmit information over their network while moving at over 70 mph, I have found that driving at more than 10-15 mph significantly decreases speeds (unlike cell phones, the signal is rarely dropped, instead the Ricochet service waits until you reach the next coverage and does its best to resume where you left off - and reliably so.)

Photo by
HARDWARE: As far as the modems go, you have three choices: two PCMCIA cards for @$299 each, or a $99 external modem. I tested the Novatel Wireless modem and have mixed feelings about it. The card comes with both Mac and IBM software and installation was a snap. Like any PCMCIA Modem card, you simply select the card in the Modem control panel. Software called "RicochetStatus" was included, which lets you know how strong of a signal you are receiving and if you are connected. I found this software to be somewhat unreliable - at times it displayed that no signal was available when one was in fact available (or vice versa.)

I have also read that the PCMCIA modems aren't as reliable as the external modem in terms of locating and maintaining a signal. My unscientific tests confirm this. A colleague using an external modem was able to connect in a variety of locations at Madison Square Garden - including on ice-level during a hockey game (he transmitted 10 photographs, albeit slowly during the second period of the game).

I was never able to get a strong enough signal to make a connection (I got no signal in fact) let alone to transmit any pictures from within the stadium. Erin Butler, a knowledgeable spokesperson for Metricom, told me that she was unaware of a discrepancy between the two types of modems, and that in fact she had heard that the PCMCIA modems had in some cases provided more consistent high-speed throughput than the external modems.

The PCMCIA modem also drains your laptop's battery power very quickly, while the external one operates on it's own power source. I also found the modem creates serious interference with your car radio, and my PowerBook's speakers. You cannot quickly stow away the PowerBook away with the PCMCIA card still installed as the antenna sticks out.

You must unmount the card on your desktop first and then eject it. Lastly the antenna only folds along the long axis of the card so that the card can be easily stowed when not in use. When in use, the antenna is always sticking out perilously whether the laptop screen is opened or closed - see illustration. I mention this because I recently broke the antenna off when I picked up my laptop and closed the LCD Panel with the antenna in its way.

Photo by
I had not realized that the antenna had folded toward the keyboard and with almost no resistance it snapped off before I realized what I had done.

Therefore given the signal, power, and design issues - I am not sold on the PCMCIA modems. Perhaps the bulkier external modem, which can be attached to the LCD panel with Velcro, is still the way to go.

It is also interesting to note that the "MicroCell" transceivers, which make up the network, are relatively cheap and easy to install - often hung from light poles in less than ten minutes.

Metricom aims to have 5 transceivers within a one-square-mile radius. There is one central transceiver, every 10 square miles, which is connected to a T-One line. Ms. Butler says that the company is continually analyzing data to find areas that warrant expansion. If there is a demand for the service in an area that is not currently covered, Metricom will look into it.

FINANCIAL PROBLEMS: So are the rumors true? Is Metricom going bankrupt? Not yet - and they don't sound like they're ready to give up. The company has a new CEO and is majority owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. Ms. Butler said their #1 priority is securing additional funding and to redefine its business strategy.

The company will slow down its deployment into new markets, while continuing to provide a high level of service to its current markets. The following markets are earmarked for expansion in 2001: Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle and St. Louis - Ms. Butler was unable to clarify which specific expansion markets will experience the expansion slowdown as the matter is currently under review. No time frame is available until more funding is secured.

The markets which currently offer the 128 kbps Ricochet service include: Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle (28K), and Washington DC (28K)

Basically - they're working on it - but no guarantees. The latest figure date back to December of 2000 and we will have to wait until their next conference call to see if they are making any progress in terms financing, and new subscriptions.

I am most worried with how few subscribers they have. Metricom has been developing this technology since 1985. They rolled out the 128kbps service in February of 2000. In a little more than a year only 34,000 people (out of the 48 million within the coverage area) have subscribed to the service which costs @$70/month for unlimited service.

That and the cost of $100-$300 for a modem is a bit pricey for your average business user - let alone a private citizen. That perhaps is their ultimate problem. Lowering their monthly fee may help - but wouldn't you rather pay $30-$60/mo. for even faster cable modem or DSL service? Ultimately it depends on how dependent you are on having fast mobile service. Ms. Butler also mentioned that 80% of subscribers use the Ricochet service within their billing address - so road warriors or traveling photographers are not in the majority.

For now I would suggest purchasing the $100 external modem if you don't want to wait and see how the company's financial woes pan out over the next few quarters. If the company fails, you can write the $100 modem off. The current market and the lack of zeal for investing more money into new technologies will make the next few months difficult for Metricom.

If they do run out of money I can foresee a larger company or ISP buying them up. The technology is marvelous - yet something is missing. Either the demand is not there yet - or perhaps there are better cheaper or faster technologies on the horizon.

What I do know is that Ricochet is the best thing out there for now - and the technology continues to make my job so much easier on a daily basis. I am spending more time shooting, and less time waiting for photographs to transmit.

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer with the New York Times and writes regularly about equipment and technology.)

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