Remembering Ricochet

From roughly 1996 to 1999, my always-on Net connection at home was a wireless one, through Ricochet. Throughput in both directions was faster than dial-up, and always-on. Customer support was good too. As it happened, both homes I lived in then were atop hills on the San Francisco Peninsula, with panoramic views of the whole Bay Area. I remember when I called once from our home in San Carlos, the tech support guy said, “We can see you on 99 nodes.” At the time it turned out that I was mostly getting on via a node in St. Helena, about 60 miles away.

In retrospect, Ricochet was way ahead of its time. It used mesh networking, spread spectrum, low-power license-free channels, and other forms of network coolness. It failed, like so much else, by being gassed up and deflated in the dot-com boom and bust. But what it negotiated with the cities and with private residents for node sites still impresses me. They had a good thing going, and now it’s long gone.

9 comments

  1. rjamestaylor’s avatar

    I used Ricochet in Orange County about the same timeframe to give me mobile connectivity to work out of the office. Being able to sit at a beachside cafe and work on adding XML output options to ancient COBOL programs (don’t ask!) was very therapeutic – I’m sure I would have gone nuts in a cubicle. Unfortunately, the 900MHz radio frequency worked well enough to allow me to maintain online chats while driving the 5 (I know, I know). I loved the service and regretted that it could not be sustained against WiFi and increasing cell phone bandwidth.

    Today I enjoy WiFi at cafes and mobile 3G/4G access, but these are not the same as Ricochet in my experience. First, WiFi is very locale based. Sure it works at the cafes but not the freeways. Second, 3G/4G allows mobility but suffers more drops, dead zones, BW caps and expense than Ricochet.

    Thanks for reminding me of that early, excellent service, Dave!

  2. rjamestaylor’s avatar

    Sorry, Doc….got here from Dave Winer’s Tweet.

    s/, Dave!/, Doc!/

  3. Geoff’s avatar

    I suspect folks will look back at the glory days of the internet, mesh networks, open WiFi freedom and all that good stuff. Pretty well all gone now , especially in Europe where we are enveloped in legislation http://www.nakedlaw.com/2010/07/waittheres-more-the-digital-economy-act-debate-rumbles-on.html

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Calling me Dave is fine, because that’s my given name. Everybody in my family, and friends that go back before the nickname got coined all still call me that.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Right, Geoff. The Digital Economy Act is hideoous, and Ofcom has always sounded awful to me as well. Though that’s partly because I consult BT, which has been under Ofcom’s thumb for the duration.

  6. Jon Henshaw’s avatar

    I used Ricochet in Denver back in the day. They worked with local governments and authorities to build out their networks, which worked well for them. Their biggest problem was that they were using a soon to be outdated technology, and they were doomed to fail simply from the fact that mobile phone companies had much better technology and reach. It was a nice stopgap for consumers, but again, their model was always doomed to fail from the beginning. I was always dumbfounded how anyone in their right mind would invest in them, but they did.

  7. Martin’s avatar

    I agree with your comment that Ofcom is pretty awful. But because it is weak and toothless. I don’t know how you can assert that BT has been under Ofcom’s thumb. BT would certainly be a different entity if we a more American-style telecoms regulation in the UK.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Martin, I made a mistake by letting my consulting work leak onto this thread, so I struck out what I said above. The situation is woefully complicated, and BT is neither a victim nor a saint in respect to Ofcom or anything else. For what it’s worth I would not favor American-style telecoms regulation for any country, including the U.S.

    I believe that the world should treat its bit-commons — and the copper, fiber and radios that comprise its infrastructure — as a form of public utility that has ambient connectivity and ample capacity as its end state. I believe we need regulation toward that end that encourages competition, enterprise and initiative by anybody and everybody in a position to make it happen — including ordinary citizens and the municipal communities to which they belong. And I’d like to see that happen in my lifetime. Since I just turned 63, I’m not very optimistic about that.

  9. Robert Gable’s avatar

    I was just thinking about Ricochet the other day as I drove by their old offices in San Jose (now occupied by government agencies).

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