Ricochet rebounds at WTC ground zero

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center unexpectedly renew the wireless high-speed Web service that was shut down more than two months ago.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center have unexpectedly renewed Ricochet, the wireless high-speed Internet service owned by Metricom that was shut down more than two months ago.

At the request of New York City officials, the Ricochet network has been turned back on to provide Internet access in the area surrounding where the World Trade Center towers once stood. The network that powered wireless access for 51,000 customers nationwide was shut down Aug. 8.

It was "relit" so search and recovery personnel combing the wreckage could send each other e-mail to coordinate their efforts, or get access to death certificate records filed online.

"People are now...Ricocheting from ground zero," said Mike Ritter, Metricom's former chief technology officer who played a role in resurrecting a small portion of the nationwide network. He is now the chief technology officer at Adstrata, a month-old wireless start-up in Silicon Valley.

New York City officials contacted Metricom about three weeks ago. Metricom discovered that one of the pole top radios used to deliver the service in that area had been destroyed, but four were still intact. It took two weeks to reconnect the pole top radios into the network and enter the names of those given access into the system before it was up and running, Ritter said.

The rescue leaders had been using conference calls on traditional telephone lines to plan their days, but "some had to wait up to two days to get a conference together," because of extensive damage to telephone networks in the New York City area, he said.

New York City officials guaranteed the network would remain active through the end of October. The Ricochet network, and its 128kbps (kilobits per second) wireless access, is accessible to between 500 and 1,000 rescue and emergency personnel.

Meta Group says the Internet's design has essentially raised the major bottlenecks from the network transport level to higher levels in the stack.

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The city is paying the costs of operating the network, including hiring a Metricom employee to monitor the system 24 hours a day from the company's offices in San Jose, Calif.

A small army of volunteers, including some former Metricom employees in New York, also is powering the effort. WorldCom, which was one of the largest investors in Metricom, is providing a crucial link between New York and San Jose, Calif., where integral pieces of the network still reside.

The Ricochet network provided wireless Internet access for laptops and handheld devices at more than twice the speed of a dial-up connection. After building a nationwide network for an estimated $1 billion, the San Jose, Calif.-based company was only able to attract about 51,000 customers. It shut down the network in August and filed for bankruptcy after failing to find a buyer for the company.

The company left behind a $1 billion debt trail. Worldcom was among its largest creditors. The company said it's owed $300 million.

So far just one company, Aerie Networks, has surfaced as a bidder for Metricom's assets. But Metricom spurned a $20 million offer.

Sources familiar with the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings say it has been difficult to find a buyer. Because of the ongoing financial downturn, "this is not a good time to be selling something," said one source.