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|| News Item: Posted 2001-08-29

My wireless provider blew through a BILLION dollars, and I didn't even get a lousy T-shirt!
By Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by
Add the Ricochet modem to the list of high-tech devices that have petrified into paperweights. That's right. Stack it next to your Leafax 35 and your collection of analog cell phones. Chances are you'll haveto start looking for the next cool toy, I mean tool.

Metricom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July after accumulating a cool billion dollars of debt and attracting only 51,000 users in its 17 markets. On August 2, they turned off the juice, killing the best wireless Internet option for photographers working on deadline. A number of newspaper photo staffs across the country were left scrambling for options as the ship suddenly sank.

For the uninitiated, Metricom's Ricochet service gave you unlimited wireless access to the Internet at 128kps (twice as fast as a modem) for about $75 per month. You're online from just about anywhere - even the pressroom toilet even.

As Gary Fong of the San Francisco Chronicle explains, "Can you imagine covering the Mets game in New York, getting 3rd inning photos to San Francisco, while still in shooting position? And then continue covering the bottom of the 3rd?"

That's right, court runners, with Ricochet not only could you run out onto the court to get your "great" wide-angle jubo shots, but you could then sit down and transmit them from the three-point line, still in everyone else's way! It was that cool!

Many of Metricom's customers were devastated to see the network shut down. In fact, when the company's assets were auctioned off on August 16, a group of former users made a failed attempt to purchase the network, hoping to keep it going.

(As Sports Shooter went to press, the results of the bankruptcy auction had not been released, though few industry pundits were forecasting a resurrection of the Ricochet network.)

"It's a major loss to our ability to shoot and transmit closer to deadline," says Fong.

Rod Mar of the Seattle Times added, "We were all using Ricochet for daily transmissions of all assignments from the field, now we have to find land lines."

Okay, you're not sold yet? You're still looking at that $75 per month figure, right? Is Metricom worth mourning? Was it worth the money?

The 51,000 users will tell you yes.

"The $6,000 we spent on Ricochet each year was a tremendous bargain. It improved the quality of life for our staff photographers," said Alan Greth, Executive Photo Editor of Contra Costa Newspapers. "We could shoot an assignment at 8pm 65 miles from our officeand have the picture in our newsroom by 8:30pm. This changed everything."

"It allowed a greater depth of coverage for the readers," said Fong. "We could cover news and sports much closer to deadline because we didn't have to break coverage to find a phone line or a place to transmit. We simply transmitted from (the) location."

Ricochet's critics will tell you that it was the "high cost" that killed the company. There's more to it than that.

Ricochet was the first major wireless option. What they attempted was ahead of its time. And we may not see another system so well suited to the needs of news photographers for years. If the Ricochet network was in your city, you had a nice coverage area and a relatively high-speed. The $75 gave you unlimited usage. Compare that to AT&T's new cellular GPRS option, only available in Seattle right now, where the ability to send a single one megabyte photo at a third of Ricochet's speed will cost you nearly eight bucks.You read right, one megabyte for eight bucks.

See, most of today's wireless networks were thought up with e-mail, stock quotes, sports scores in mind - information that takes up very little bandwidth. Unlike the twenty megabytes of photos you needed to move from the bush league baseball game last night. Photographers need some serious pipes.

Right now the alternatives to Ricochet are maddeningly slow, expensive, or inconvenient. Twelve minutes to send a photo on a cell phone is no longer cool or exciting. And who knows when we'll see the long-promised 3G cellular standard nationwide, let alone the pricing plans for clogging that network's veins with fatty photographs.

Hitting its stride at the perfect moment is the 802.11b wireless standard. It's the one Apple calls "Airport" and others call Wi-Fi. 802.11b offers connection speeds rivaling that of DSL and cable modems, with each base station emanating up to a 300' coverage zone. It's cross-platform (Mac and PC) and setting up an access point is cheap.

What's really interesting about 802.11b are the anarchistic movements that are sprouting up behind it. Groups in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, London, and even cities like Laramie, Wyoming have created websites publicizing the locations of their members' base stations, which they allow the public to use free of charge. ( is a good place for information about free networks.) If you live near one of these free access points, $100 for a wireless card would get you free, high-speed, unlimited access to the Internet. You can't beat that.

In addition to these free community-based Internet access points, many companies are starting to install 802.11b access points in hotels, airports, coffee shops, universities, etc. In fact, Mobilestar plans to have wireless Internet available in 70 % of the nation's Starbucks locations within the next year (100 % by 2003). Not everyone's giving it away for free, though. Mobilestar plans start at $15 per month or you can pre-purchase minutes in bulk.

The drawback to Mobilestar (as opposed to Ricochet)? You've got to drive to a Starbucks or other Mobilestar access point. The advantage? Connection speeds up to ten times as fast as Ricochet. Many newspapers that were using Ricochet are moving to Mobilestar in some capacity.

No mention of 802.11b is complete without a mention of "war driving." It's the act of driving around with your wireless-equipped laptop looking for open networks. Most of the people buying 802.11b base stations are setting them up password-free in their homes and offices. They may be leaving the door open on purpose, or out of ignorance. But if you're within range of a password-free access point, you can connect and get online for free.

And believe me, the systems are out there. They are all over the place. Driving through a small town in Utah one evening between assignments, I found ten wide-open access points. That's small-town Utah, my friend. Imagine what the fishing would be like in a major market. From any of these locations, I could have checked my e-mail, surfed the web, or sent photos back to the office. But isn't it illegal? Of course. It's as illegal as jaywalking. Strictly against the law.

Photo by
LEGAL WARNING: Logging onto someone else's network with malicious intent to cause damage, or even looking into confidential files/information on a person's hard-drive or network is a serious criminal offense, unlike jaywalking.

So while Metricom has shut down, your Leafax 35 will no longer calibrate, and your analog cell phone is a useless brick, keep in mind we're in a transition period. We'll all have to wait for the next great wireless solution to develop. And it will come. Just like my 24mm lens will some day turn into a true 24mm on a regular-sized, high quality digital camera. Won't that be a sweet day?

(Trent Nelson, News Editor for Photography at The Salt Lake Tribune. His email address is:


Wireless Links

Here is a list of links to various companies offering free or commercial access to the net via 802.11b.

Wayport, primarily hotels/airports, fee-based. TN

Mobilestar, Starbucks, hotels/airpots, fee-based

Airwave, Bay-Area only, free

Surf and Sip, limited national coverage, free through 2001

Related Links:

Related Email Addresses: 
Trent Nelson:

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