Ride along with a Verizon Wireless test man
By Jon Gales --
Can you hear me now? Ask anyone under thirty the first thing they think of after hearing that phrase and you'll likely hear back Verizon Wireless. For good or evil, the ads portraying a lonely Verizon Wireless employee asking the person on the other line if the connection is good, are everywhere. While the actor in the commercials probably couldn't program his speed dial, I recently rode along with a real Verizon Wireless test man named Levy Rippy. Levy works out of the Temple Terrace office near my home in Tampa, Florida.
Verizon Wireless operates testing teams in major markets all across the US. Levy typically logs 3,000+ miles per month (and that's city driving, I don't envy him). Besides testing their own network, these teams check up on their competitors. Levy's rig was testing Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, ALLTEL, Nextel, T-Mobile and AT&T (Cingular). In addition to voice, each company's data service is tested. Data testing is still pretty new so EV-DO hasn't been worked into the system, only 1xRTT is checked for Verizon Wireless.
I arrived at the Verizon Wireless facility at 9:30AM and thankfully it was a bright sunny day. The first thing was a tour of the testing vehicle, a very wireless savvy Ford Taurus station wagon. Though not typically a sought after ride, this wagon has more wireless reception than it knows what to do with. On the outside it looks fairly normal for part of a corporate fleet—white with tinted windows. But, on the top there is an array of small antennas which catch casual stares at intersections. Spaced evenly on the car's roof, the antennas are specially configured and tuned just for the vehicle. The roof antennas are used for voice connections while data antennas are located on the inside stuck to the rear windows.
The real cool stuff sat behind the rear hatch (see photos). The equipment may not look like much at first, but don't look for it at Best Buy—Verizon Wireless says it costs over $250,000. The two cases in the rear contain mobile phones that have had their software tweaked to allow detailed logging and control features. Up front sits newer equipment to test data connections. These boxes heat up pretty quickly and have exhaust fans that Levy told me can make a summer ride sweaty.
Up front sit two laptops, one for voice calls and one for data connections. They are both hooked into GPS so that the car's exact position is recorded along with all the other data. This helps make the log files long (a few hundred megs for the voice reports and several gigabytes for the data reports) but the all-important coverage map possible.
Calls are made from all of the phones back to a set of computers at the office. The computers are old Windows NT machines with four phone lines each. Their only purpose is to support Levy in the field. A set recording (example at the end of this article) is used to test the overall voice quality. Because the software knows the quality of the original clip, it's a simple process to tell the quality of the call. Can you hear me now? isn't mixed anywhere in the audio content, but there are lots of nonsense phrases that make for laughs the first time or two around. The clips mix in every letter and a lot of different sounds in both high and low pitches to simulate any possible real life application.
The computer also makes calls to the Verizon Wireless phone in the car, so every so often you'll hear it ring. All of the calls are on a preset schedule and happen automagically. The software on one of the laptops shows a very interesting real-time graph detailing the connection of the Verizon Wireless phone. There is a lot of data behind how many service bars you have.
Since data downloads take varying amounts of time to complete, depending on the speed, the data testing isn't as nicely defined as voice tests. HTTP and FTP are both tested for upload/download, except on Nextel which blocks FTP. As I mentioned before, EV-DO is not yet tested, but the laptops are hooked up with a BroadbandAccess card in case Levy needs internet access.
Dropped calls for Verizon Wireless are pretty rare these days, with some months of testing seeing none. I saw a report from February and it showed one dropped call for Verizon Wireless for the month (and it was in the middle of the Howard Franklin bridge over Tampa Bay). Most other carries have a few more, but percentage wise it's mostly insignificant. Verizon Wireless also uses testing teams like Levy to check out dead spots that have been reported by customers.
It would be nice if a third party (Consumer Reports type organization) did wide scale testing like this and published the results. Who wouldn't like to see what coverage for a carrier is in a given neighborhood. Thinking of moving homes or carriers? Just check the coverage first! But, even though the general public can't glance at Verizon Wireless' data, they use it extensively to plan future expansion and fix trouble spots which helps the consumer. Case in point: several testing units were dispatched last year to the parts of Florida that were damaged by hurricanes so that the wireless network could be brought back up to full strength more quickly.
To play audio recording of test file, you need a media player that can handle MP3 files (e.g. QuickTime
Download Verizon Wireless testing audio track (you may need to right click and save the file to your desktop)