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This Ricochet Will Never Return

By Stephen H. Wildstrom Back in June, in a column called "A Road Test of Traveling Laptops," I took a look at a new Compaq Presario laptop that came bundled with a Novatel Merlin PC card that allowed access to Metricom's high-speed Ricochet network. I found that in the dozen or so cities where service was available, Ricochet, which offered speeds of up to 128 kilobits per second, was the best option available for wide-area wireless Internet access. But I warned that Metricom was in precarious financial condition and could run out of money by August.

Alas, worse has come to worst for Metricom. In a market environment where investors would rather walk on coals than pump money into struggling communications companies, Metricom was unable to raise the cash it needed to survive. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July, but was unable to work its way out of a staggering debt load. On Aug. 2, Metricom announced it was ceasing operations as of Aug. 8 and liquidating remaining assets through an auction.

A LONELY LAMPPOST. The company was caught in a classic double bind. To attract customers, it needed to expand its coverage dramatically beyond the city centers of a handful of urban areas. But to build out its network, it needed strong cash flow from paying customers. In the end, Ricochet had just 41,000 paying subscribers, not nearly enough for a financially viable service.

To make matters worse, Ricochet was an expensive technology to deploy, depending on relatively short-range transmitters hung from utility poles. A Ricochet access point is still hanging forlornly from a lamppost across the street from my office, and I suppose it will just stay there forever. But I doubt that I'll ever see it turned on again. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online

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