By Nancy J. McCann
The time is the mid-1980s. Sitting low in the tan leather seat of a red Jaguar, Bryan Darr ’84 adjusts his aviator sunglasses and downshifts into second gear as he winds through the streets of Memphis. He speeds along I-240 East to the Airways exit, then south to his destination, a generic business park near the airport. Upon arrival, he relinquishes the car keys to a waiting technician. Within a few hours Darr is back behind the wheel, with the latest technology in hand: a car phone.
Ubiquitous today, but rare, pricey, and much larger back then, mobile phones were in their infancy when Darr began working as a salesman for Cellular One Memphis. The first cellular network in the world went up in Chicago in 1983. The first network in Memphis launched in 1985. Darr provided kid-glove service for his wealthy customers by driving their luxury cars to the installation facility and back. He was 24 years old and only a year out of Rhodes College.
Today, Darr serves as president and CEO of Mosaik Solutions, a company that provides the largest mobile network coverage database in the world. “I was always a technology geek,” admits Darr. “I was the first person to ever bring a Betamax to campus, and I served as DJ at the Kappa Alpha house almost immediately after pledging. I am fortunate to have found a job that is also a hobby. I love figuring out the complicated ways that one set of data relates to another set of data. That is critical to the core of the database we have built at Mosaik.”
Thinking about data and the need for gathering and disseminating large amounts of data to assist his mobile customer base launched Darr on a new career path. Although the new technology was called “mobile” or “transportable,” it was hard-pressed to live up to its name in the beginning. Not only were the phones big and bulky, but also the networks were few and far between. In mid-1985, Nashville; Jackson, MS; and Little Rock didn’t have cellular networks. If Darr’s customers traveled beyond Memphis, they entered a black hole of cell phone service for hours. St. Louis, New Orleans, and Dallas were the next closest markets with service.
Once a mobile phone was outside of its home network, callers had to dial a “roamer access number” in order to place a call, and each network had a unique number. As more and more networks launched, roamer access numbers multiplied. Even dialing patterns for outbound calls could be a challenge. Some cities required that area codes be dialed and others didn’t. Keeping track of all this information while traveling—just to make or receive a phone call—was a daunting task.
“Every city, even little towns, had their special access number for each network,” Darr says. “Originally there were over 700 markets with two operators in each market. That’s a lot of numbers.”
And, it was expensive to place or receive a call “out of network.” According to Darr, it could cost up to $3 per day plus 50 cents to $1.25 per minute. Darr’s customers, wealthy business people who could afford this new technology—cotton brokers, lawyers, politicians, and construction company executives—traveled for business and wanted to easily communicate on their mobile phones when outside of Memphis. But how, when it was so complex and confusing to use them?
Darr, in only his second year with Cellular One, devised a “roaming guide” to aid his frustrated clients. On a legal-sized sheet of paper he listed 40 to 50 locations within the United States and Canada that had cellular service, along with the corresponding access codes/dialing numbers. “As far as I know,” says Darr, “that was the first one.”
Believing he had a valuable product to offer the budding telecom industry, Darr quit his well-paying sales job—he was one of the top producers at Cellular One when he left—and started publishing roaming guides. “I went to my boss and said, ‘I want to quit. I want to start my own company, I want you to be my first customer, but this market isn’t big enough by itself, so would you please introduce me to your boss in Nashville?’” Darr recalls.
In 1988, American Roamer was born. It produced travel-sized roaming guides that included useful information such as which locales had phone service, access numbers, customer service numbers, and dialing patterns associated with each network in each city. American Roamer tracked all of this information, constantly updating it as networks were bought and sold and customer service operations were consolidated regionally and nationally.
As mobile phone service expanded through the years, so did American Roamer. In 1991, it began making coverage maps in addition to the roaming guide booklets. These colorful and often complex maps were produced for clients who wanted to market their growing roaming capabilities—and better rates—as they joined forces with neighboring networks. By providing an accurate visual of network coverage, American Roamer’s reputation for map-making grew, as did its client base. Mapping is at the core of what Darr’s company is best known for today.
After undergoing a rebranding in 2012, American Roamer changed its name to Mosaik Solutions to better reflect the company’s global geographic scope and suite of products. Mosaik tracks coverage patterns of more than 1,000 mobile operators worldwide and has coverage information on more than 900 of them. It tracks multiple technologies (2G, 3G, 4G, LTE, etc.) across multiple mobile network operators. The information benefits not just telecom giants such as AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, but “anyone who is interested in knowing where the networks work and what technology has been deployed there,” explains Darr. “Like companies that are involved in telematics—tracking vehicle locations—like OnStar. Or businesses that handle machine to machine communications (M2M). Imagine a Coke machine that notifies the warehouse how many Dr. Peppers or Sprites to put on the truck in order to restock the machine. Any of these M2M communications are relying on the cellular network to be able to get that information passed back and forth.”
Darr, originally from Chattanooga, TN, calls Memphis his adopted town. He set down roots in the Bluff City after marrying his college sweetheart (Leslie McCormick Darr ’87) one month after her graduation. Darr admits it can be challenging to recruit prospective employees, as the telecom industry has consolidated to a handful of cities (Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, New York, and Washington, D.C.), but he believes Memphis has a lot to offer: a reasonable cost of living, quality of life, and an easy commute. “I can get on a plane and go anywhere,” says Darr. “There’s no one location that would be perfect, as our clients are spread out all over the place.” Mosaik works with companies around the globe: Asia, Europe, and South and North America, and Darr hopes to expand into Africa soon.
He partly attributes his business leadership acumen to his Rhodes education. “My time at Rhodes was very formative. I gained a lot of experience from my classroom work as well as socially. It provided opportunities for me to learn some leadership traits and to learn what traits weren’t leadership worthy. I loved my time at Rhodes and am very jealous of the kids starting there right now. If we had the Refectory of today—all those fabulous food options—I probably would have put on another 10 pounds.”