Lord of the roof

Ryan Jarvis's London startup rents space atop urban buildings, then subleases to service providers that mount wireless network antennas.

By Mark Halper, Fortune contributor

(Fortune Magazine) -- It has always been easy to spot Ryan Jarvis. He's the one consistently in front of the wireless broadband scrum. In 2000 he started Megabeam, a pioneering Wi-Fi hotspot operator. Three years later he joined BT, spearheading its Wi-Fi operations. Today you can find the 36-year-old entrepreneur on a rooftop.

Jarvis's London startup, Macropolitan, rents space atop urban buildings, which he subleases to service providers who mount antennas for WiMax and other wireless networks. He claims to save operators close to half of their typical first-year costs and about 25% over ten to 25 years.

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Jarvis snaps up rights at reduced rates by acquiring swaths from property owners such as Travelodge Hotels and National Rail. He passes along discounts on rooftops that can otherwise cost $50,000 a year, and he spares his customers fees for electricity, maintenance, and lawyers.

He also eliminates the tedium of finding sites. "An operator can get its network deployed faster when it has access to sites where the rights and terms have already been agreed to," says Jarvis. The property industry benefits too. "This is something we didn't actively market in the past, but with Macropolitan we see it as serious revenue-generating potential," says Travelodge commercial director Ian Evans.

Macropolitan started in May 2006, and Jarvis has spent much of his time since then acquiring nearly 17,000 sites in Britain. Now he's signing up customers. So far he has three, including Britain's Urban Wimax. T-Mobile has reportedly signed on, though neither Jarvis nor T-Mobile would confirm it.

Jarvis, who hasn't yet turned a profit, is confident that his no-fuss offer will appeal to anyone building a WiMax network, the fledgling technology threatening cellular because of its faster speed and lower cost.

Although Britain has only about 200 pockets of WiMax service, the technology is expected to pick up after regulator OFCOM auctions spectrum next year and providers like BT back it. Jarvis, who plans to expand into Europe and the Middle East, isn't only about WiMax - he rents for cellular too. But "the biggest opportunities will come next year with the big WiMax rollouts," he says. Then he might really find himself on top of things.  Top of page