Macropolitan came out from nowhere last year, and is now a key part of moves to get a mobile WiMax network up and running in the UK. We spoke to its head, Ryan Jarvis, a former BT executive and veteran of Wi-Fi hotspots.

A group led by Urban WiMax and backed by Nortel, is planning to demonstrate mobile WiMax services this year, and bid for spectrum in Ofcom's planned auction of 2.5GHz spectrum next year. Its network plans include antennas on more than 9000 rooftops - and Jarvis' company is the one providing those rooftops.

Macropolitan aggregates

The company has deals which let it negotiate rooftop access deals for a group of property owners including gyms and hotel chains. It is technology neutral, so it can work with 3G, WiMax or any other technology that comes along.

Jarvis set Macropolitan up last May, after leaving BT where, as head of convergence he set up the Fusion convergence effort and launched the FMCA. Neither of those have set the world on fire however - Macropolitan is really a return to his previous success in Wi-Fi hotspots, where he built and sold hotspot operator Megabeam, which became the core of Swisscom's Eurospot Wi-Fi business.

"Hotspots were the first businesses that bought telecom revenue to property owners," says Jarvis. He's still mediating between property owners and the telecoms world - and working with some of the same property owners, but he's gone up in the lift from the lobby to the roof. "Without us, the operators talk the wrong language," he says. "We are the intermediary between the property owner and the telecoms world, so operators don't end up dealing with the underlying landlord."

It's a small world - the other comparable company is Arquiva, formerly NTL Broadcast, which mostly owns towers outside cities, and is in the process of merging with rival National Grid Wireless.

Oh, and he also has internal wireless deals with these people, for variations on the old hotspot market, including guardband pico-cells and femtocells.

Why WiMax?

If Macropolitan is really technology neutral, why back WiMax like this? "We act in the best interests of property owners," says Jarvis. "We want multiple technologies and multiple operators per roof. We'd like DVB-H and 3G and Wimax on same roof - that would mean multiple revenue streams for landlords."

It's not a question of technology I prefer," says Jarvis. "Property owners think in terms of ten to 25 year contracts - three will be 3G, WiMax and successors to WiMax during the lifetime of those contracts." He does say that WiMax was central to his decision to start Macropolitan, though.

3G deployment is more or less done - Macropolitan has several thousand requests from mobile operators, he says, but it's infill. Mobile WiMax is exciting by contrast: "It's a greenfield deployment, there will be thousands of sites per operator per annum." It will all be backed by venture capital, too.

By bundling and pre-signing 9300 sites in one go (at a price Jarvis won't disclose) Macropolitan gives Urban Wimax a chance to do its budgets, and deploy fast when (or if) it gets its spectrum. Individual acquisitions would take longer and add uncertainty to the business plan: "We can press the trigger when the spectrum is bought."

Within WiMax, Macropolitan is also not exclusively tied to Urban. It has another agreement with Alcatel-Lucent that could lead to other networks, and two more global vendors that are not yet announced.

3G: Striking back?

But does Urban run the risk that this will raise the stakes at the auctions, by playing its hand so early? Jarvis is sanguine about the possibility of operators buying spectrum as a protectionist measure: "One should never rule out the possibility that mobile operators might actually embrace WiMax. It's not mutually exclusive."

Large WiMax projects like Sprint Nextel in the US, and Rogers and Bell Canada in Canada are backed by operators with mobile spectrum, and Vodafone is a shareholder in companies doing WiMax in Bahrain and Malta, says Jarvis.

"3G is voice optimised and there's a vast array of handsets, while WiMax is IP optimized and, in Sprint's case, delivered to PCs," says Jarvis. "Cellular is built round people and phones, while WiMax users don't even have to be human beings - a lot of it will be machine to machine," he says, suggesting sensor networks and CCTV cameras in fire engines."

WiMax might cannibalise the 3G data business that operators are building up, but that might be to their benefit it WiMax is cheaper to provide because it is IP optimised, says Jarvis.

Whither Muni Wi-Fi?

Jarvis is diplomatic about a group of networks that might be competition, and might be customers: "Municipal Wi-Fi, backed by local authorities, tends to be low-rent," he says, meaning the network pays small rents for nodes at streetlight level. The network has a lower revenue potential, and the business case needs subsidy from the authority, acting as an anchor tenant.

Some of these networks, frustrated with the difficulties of dealing with separate local councils, will come to Macropolitan, he says. Others may use them for backhaul. Others may simply throw in the towel and use commercial WiMax services. Some are already using WiMax-like equipment in licence-exempt or light-licensed spectrum, but all use Wi-Fi for access. "Most Muni Wi-Fi is based on the hotspot model, and that is here to stay," says Jarvis - but in 2007, he's not betting his company on serving that market.

He also doesn't deal with an organisation you might expect to be significant - the Church of England, with spires and steeples all over the country. That job is too specialist, as masts on or inside church buildings fall under ecclesiastical rules, and the buildings are usually listed for preservation. The whole business is also always under threat due to concerns about morality.

"That's not a rapid route to a site," says Jarvis. "In most towns there are higher buildings with flatter roofs and operators are in a hurry." Somewhat thankfully, he points to the church's approved mast manager, QS4, with whom Macropolitan shares an investor, Consensus.