August 6, 2001

Ricochet, the community network?

Author: JT Smith

-By Dan Berkes-
The Internet world became a much more wired place last week, when
Metricom's Ricochet wireless Internet
network was yanked off life support. With community support, however, there
might be a way for the Ricochet userbase to keep using its wireless modems even
if the planned auction doesn't restore commercial service.About the only thing for certain in this scenario is that Ricochet as we
know it is dead and gone. The few remaining Metricom staff are busy
shutting down the servers and links to the outside world, and their task
should be completed by August 8. It's unlikely that we'll
see another multi-city Ricochet network again; given that Metricom
couldn't stay afloat even when charging users as much as $80 per month for
the service, it's hard to expect another company test the waters.

Financially, Metricom's Ricochet network is a white elephant. But focus on
the technology, and a different picture develops.

Mounted on utility poles in every neighborhood once served by Ricochet are
thousands of transmitter/receiver radio units, each about the size of a
hardcover book. These pole-top radios were the last mile for Metricom's Ricochet
network, delivering Internet services to subscribers. Those radios could keep on
serving the community as a new peer-to-peer network, with the help of the Starmode Radio IP

There are a few unsupported features in Metricom's pole-top
network that allow the radios to perform useful functions, even if there's no
Ricochet or other traditional service to support. One is known as
Starmode, and it allows computers using those wireless modems from Metricom to
send packets to each other directly; essentially a wireless Ethernet LAN. Just
add in a single computer with an Internet connection as gateway for a full
Internet experience, sans wires, and the $80 per month cost that most
Ricochet members were paying.

Unless you purchased your modem in 2001, that is. Metricom programmed their
pole-top radios to ignore Starmode packet requests made from modems registered
after December 2000. Even if your modem was purchased long before the cutoff
date, there's no guarantee that it will work under Starmode. And the type of
modem purchased -- serial or USB -- might even affect the outcome. As written on
the STRIP home page, "As far as Metricom is concerned, Starmode IP is a
university experiment, not a commercial service." Obviously, the free stuff
wasn't on the company's short list of promoted and supported features.

STRIP was born at MosquitoNet, a project run by the Mobile Computing Group
at Stanford University. That site provides helpful information, but may not be
the most up to date with information regarding support for Metricom modems. The
last update from October 2000 points readers to a more comprehensive page written by Alex Belits
(try the cached Google copy of that page if you
have trouble accessing it directly). Belits describes how, if it's at all
possible, to make a range of Metricom-built and supported wireless modems work
via Linux.

At the bottom of Belits' wireless modem page, he gives "no
thanks" to the "customer support drones" at Metricom and its partner WWC for
removing peer-to-peer references in its technical documentation, and for
refusing to acknowledge network problems (that had nothing at all to do with any
client computer) simply because he used Linux.

That lends a certain irony to
knowing that Linux is one of the few -- if not the only -- operating systems
where there's sufficient Starmode community documentation and software support.

How long Metricom's orphaned pole-top wireless data broadcast network will
remain viable as a p2p platform is anyone's guess. Utility services and other
third-parties nervous about liability issues could start uninstalling the boxes
themselves if no bidder comes in to take over the network. It's also entirely
possible that the boxes will be left to live out their time before failure,
dying of old age at some future point.

Of course, it's always possible that some white knight will appear at the last
moment, and resurrect the entire wireless network.

Yeah. That'll happen. Won't it?


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