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Ricochet Rebounds in Denver

After nearly a half-year testing its service with the City of Denver, Ricochet has bounced back into the consumer world, officials announced Thursday evening.

Ricochet -- a popular but under-funded wireless broadband Internet service provider (ISP) -- was shut down last August after the service's owner, Metricom, Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, fired its employees and sold the assets to Aerie Networks for a song.

While the Port Authority in New York suggested keeping the wireless network alive to assist emergency crews following the 9/11 attacks, it wasn't enough to convince Metricom, or interested investors, to keep Ricochet in business.

This time, however, officials are working hard to make Ricochet invaluable to city officials so it doesn't have to rely solely on the whims of consumer graces to stay afloat. Since February, Ricochet has been field-testing its wireless mesh network service with the city's Denver Advanced Wireless Network (DAWN) for emergency and disaster preparedness.

According to Kabira Hatland, a Ricochet spokesperson, the company is looking to broker deals with local agencies in the markets they are trying to enter. "Public safety is a huge application potential for us," she said. "Safety officers use CDPD to get real-time information, which is only 7-8 Kbps. Our service lets them download building plans, photographs and other large files much faster." It's a logical starting point for the newly emerged company; Aerie Networks is headquartered in Denver.

At one point, Ricochet was available in 21 markets and had 51,000 subscribers in the U.S. Today, the service is essentially one market, Denver, with a potential customer base of under one million.

Morton Aaronson, Ricochet Networks, Inc., president and chief executive officer, said Denver is an appropriate place to re-launch the wireless broadband service, given the dearth of broadband choices in a major NFL city.

"Denver has limited broadband coverage from other services like (digital subscriber line) and cable," he said. "I should know, I can't get either in my neighborhood."

Cost of the service is in line with DSL and cable rates for the most part, with a $44.95 a month price tag. Unlike other providers who essentially give away their modems, Ricochet users need to buy one for $99.

While wireless broadband Internet has always been plagued with the perception of latency problems, speeds on Ricochet's network are typically 176 Kbps (with burstable speeds up to 400 Kbps), officials said -- not great, compared to standard asymmetric DSL (ADSL) download speeds of 384 Kbps, but still much better than dial up service.

"I don't know if we're focused on (DSL or cable users)," Hatland said. "But we get calls from a lot of them who want the mobility Ricochet has, even if it is at a slower speed, that they can't get from DSL or cable."

Ricochet's wireless mesh network is similar to 802.11b's hot spot technology, but with telling differences. Instead of "pools" of access points found throughout the city in a hot spot, Ricochet users connect via their modem, where data requests are uploaded to a transmitter found on top of city lamp posts. From there, the signal is sent on to a wireless access control (WAC) point and on to the central office.

It also differs from 802.11b in the spectrum realm. Ricochet's patented micro cellular data network (MCDN) operates on the 900 MHz spectrum, as opposed to Wi-Fi's 2.4 GHz. Officials say the spectrum, using frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology, is inherently more secure than Wi-Fi and able to pass through solid objects with less interference issues.

Officials said they are in "active negotiations" with 14 other markets, with an emphasis on wooing local governments, resellers and multi-dweller unit (MDU, another word for condominiums, hotels and apartments) owners.

Hatland said Ricochet will launch service in San Diego in late September/early October, and is "very close" to closing deals with three to four other cities in the U.S. by the end of the year.