Walking to work one morning last fall, I happened to notice an odd gray contraption fastened to a streetlight on Madison Avenue. It was about the size of a shoe box, with a short antenna hanging from it like a loose shoestring. The streets of midtown Manhattan are full of strange things, but for some reason this one caught my eye. I soon learned that the gray box is one of 3,000 transceivers that Metricom, a company based in San Jose, Calif., had recently installed on streetlights and utility poles across New York City. The transceivers, which relay low-power radio waves above the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians, are part of a high-speed wireless network called Ricochet.
Wireless networks allow users to connect to the Internet while they're away from the office or home--in a coffee shop, say, or barreling down the street in a taxi. Unfortunately, most of the wireless gadgets now being sold have serious drawbacks. Have you ever tried typing a Web address on the keypad of a cellular phone? Your fingers cramp from repeatedly pushing the buttons, and your eyes get rheumy from staring at the tiny screen. Web-connected handheld computers such as the Palm VII have bigger screens and better interfaces, but their transmission rates are glacial compared with those of desktop computers.
This article was originally published with the title Look, Ma, No Wires!.