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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Laptops Enter Wireless World

PORTLAND, Oregon -- Nancy Melone and Tim McGuire are the typical busy couple of the '90s -- she's a University of Oregon business professor; he's the dean.

But they've found a typically cutting edge way to stay in touch. Thanks to laptop computers and a wireless Internet link on campus, they can chat by e-mail -- anytime, anywhere.

The wireless system, Ricochet, was created by Metricom Inc., starting with students and corporate parks and lately expanding to consumers.

Backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Metricom has linked the entire San Francisco Bay area and is also hooking up Seattle and Washington, D.C. In the next three years, Metricom plans to cover up to 50 metropolitan areas with wireless access to laptop computer users across the nation.

"We take the laptop computer and hook it to the Internet, and those are two explosive markets," said Bill Swain, chief financial officer of the Los Gatos, California-based Metricom.

Metricom networks are part of a growing move into mobile digital communications. AT&T Wireless Service recently announced plans for PocketNet, a cellular phone that will browse the Internet for information like phone numbers, flight schedules and e-mail.

For many computer users, a Ricochet connection takes the place of a second phone line, freeing up their main number for old-fashioned talking. The cost per month -- $29.95 per month for regular hookup and $19.95 for students -- is often less than the price of a second line and separate Internet access through a commercial provider.

"It really is slick," said Gordon Andersen, an Oregon State bookstore manager who sells the system and helps students set it up. "A lot of people are getting more mobile and they need access to a computer network."

Metricom customers plug small wireless modems about the size of a TV remote control into a laptop computer. They relay signals to larger modems about the size of a shoe box, hung on utility poles, which in turn relay signals to leased telephone lines.

The signals are routed to Houston and linked to the Internet.

The first campus to be wired was the University of California at Santa Cruz, not far from the corporate headquarters of Metricom. Since its hookup, the school has avoided spending on rewiring for additional phone lines, said Fred Siff, the associate vice chancellor for computing.

"You don't have to build a national infrastructure to make it happen," Siff said. "You don't have to orbit a satellite. You just hang these things on light poles, and you grow it as demand grows."