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WIRELESS COMPUTER NETWORK TO EXTEND HERE

First, came wireless phones. Now, wireless computers are coming to the Buffalo area.

"You're going to be able to take your laptop computer and go to the beach or your back yard, and you're going to be able to connect to your company's network and receive e-mail," said Ray Wetherbee, a local manager in Metricom's Amherst office.

The California-based communications company is asking municipalities for permission to install a shoe box-sized device on top of lamp posts. Signals from the Internet bounce from these boxes to computers; hence the wireless network's name -- Ricochet. Just six to eight of these devices per square mile will give seamless coverage, Wetherbee said.

In return for a municipality allowing the company to use the light poles, Metricom, which is backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will give the municipality a percentage of its revenue as well as free subscriptions based on the number of residents.

Initially, the service will be available in Buffalo and the Towns of Amherst, Cheektowaga, Hamburg and Tonawanda. "Beyond that, we'll have to do more research," Wetherbee said. "We don't have the resources to approach everyone at once."

Metricom already has approached Buffalo and Amherst, where officials liked the idea but have not yet signed contracts.

If all goes well, the $70-a-month unlimited service will be start becoming available next summer. Metricom likely will lease the Ricochet system to a telephone or cellular company.

The introduction of the network in Buffalo is part of Metricom's expansion into 55 cities across the country, including Albany and Rochester.

The wireless system already is operating in San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and parts of New York City.

The advent of wireless computers is similar to the revolution that freed phones from the cord in the wall and allowed people to talk on them anywhere, anytime.

Like cellular phones, "cellular" computers will not need a phone line to access the Internet.

While $70 a month is a steep price tag for a casual computer user, some local businesses said they could see their employees using the service.

Some real estate agents already use laptops for sales presentation and researching property listings, so Hunt Real Estate says that connecting to the Internet while on the road would be natural for its agents.

"In this area, the real estate industry has probably lagged a little behind other parts of the country, but it's quickly, quickly moving toward mobility and wireless," said Bob Scholz, product manager for Hunt Real Estate. "I think you'll see a surge of interest in the unlimited use of wireless in a year to 18 months."

Scholz already has wireless computer access through Verizon Wireless.

Instead of plugging into a phone line in the wall, he plugs his computer into his cell phone to access the Internet. But he said he would be interested in having another option.

Verizon Wireless charges a monthly access fee of $4.95 to $19.95, which gives subscribers between 60 and 500 free minutes a month, said John O'Malley, public-relations manager.

People who want occasionally to check their e-mail might be better off with Verizon's service because of its lower price.

But someone who spends hours online, especially surfing the Web, might be interested in what Metricom has to offer.

Although it costs more, Metricom's service is much faster than that of Verizon Wireless.

Downloading a typical Web page would take more than a minute with Verizon Wireless, but about eight seconds with Metricom's system. A person who uses a dial-in service such as America Online would have to wait about 30 seconds for the page to load.

More companies probably will provide wireless Internet service as consumers demand as much mobile access from their computers and they do from their phones.

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