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  • Photo by David Brooks

    Rodney Bushey, Verizon Wireless test driver, shows the laptop that gathers data about cell-phone signals as he drives throughout Northern New England.
  • Photo by David Brooks

    This equipment in the back of a Verizon Wireless test vehicle gathers data about cell-phone signals - those of Verizon and of its competitors.
  • Photo by David Brooks

    The numbers on the top of this Verizon Wireless test vehicle are actually antennas - eight of them, measuring various types of cell-phone signals. the truck also has small data antennas hanging inside various windows.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Listen to Verizon Wireless’ real Test Guy now

To get the obvious question out of the way right off the bat: As he drives 50,000 miles a year throughout northern New England testing Verizon Wireless’ signal, Rodney Bushey never, ever says “Can you hear me now?” And he’d prefer that you don’t, either.

“It’s not so bad, now that we’re changing the ads, but the first year on the job, I was getting really sick of hearing that,” said Bushey, an associate engineer for the company.

Bushey is one of five drivers in New England, part of a team of 95 nationwide, who gather on-the-ground information for Verizon Wireless, data used by the company to make decisions about upgrades, expansion and repairs to its cell-phone network.

They are the real face of Test Guy, he of the geeky spectacles and unavoidable catchphrase.

Verizon Wireless has largely dropped that advertising approach and is spending billions to create the wireless network known loosely as 4G in which voice calls are barely an afterthought, but drivers like Bushey are still performing the automated equivalent of “Can you hear me now?” They remain a key to the company – in times both good and bad.

“During the floods in Rhode Island, all our drivers went down there. They were driving through the water, testing the network, finding any problems,” said Richard Enright, director of engineering for New England for Verizon Wireless.

That’s the exception, however. The main task of people like Bushey, who lives north of Burlington, Vt., and regularly travels as far south as Nashua and as far east as the New Brunswick border with Maine, is to determine how the network is working when life is normal.

“They pretty much replicate the customer experience,” said Enright.

Verizon Wireless isn’t alone in this, of course. All of the “big four” cell-phone companies – including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – as well as many smaller firms have similar operations, and there are also third-party companies that will do independent drive tests, either to double-check company results or to fill in coverage holes.

It seems ironic that in an era when satellites can photograph our yards and send video around the globe, cell-phone companies can’t somehow check their billion-dollar businesses from orbit.

But as everybody who uses a cell phone knows, coverage can be spotty even in places that seem to be blanketed by signals, and no technology exists to spot those holes except to go where they exist and do some measuring.

Bushey, like just about any cell-phone employee, hears about spotty coverage from friends and strangers. He tells of one customer who could see a cell-phone antenna but couldn’t get a signal; the problem was, Bushey said, that her home was against a tall rock cliff, and the signal had to be aimed over the cliff – and therefore over the house – or it would have been blocked.

On the job, Bushey carries a host of telecommunications equipment in the back of a GMC Tahoe, a large SUV chosen partly because it has separate air conditioner outlets in the back that help keep all those digital gizmos from overheating.

The equipment automatically makes phone calls featuring spoken “Harvard sentences,” phonetically balanced statements developed to test signal quality, and continuously uploads and downloads 50-kilobyte data files, often the text of the U.S. Constitution, testing “through-put.”

A laptop sitting alongside the driver keeps track of results of these connections as he drives predetermined routes – busy areas are driven at least quarterly, remote areas at least once a year – creating a database for engineers and bean-counters to chew over as they decide such things as how best to expand so-called 4G into New Hampshire.

The Tahoe carries eight extra antennas on top, although their nubby design makes them look like the foundation for some weird roof rack rather than a radio antenna, to collect this information as well as data about signal quality of major competitors. A good chunk of Bushey’s day involves turning all these numbers into grist for the corporate planning mill.

“Maybe 60 percent of this job is driving,” he said. “A lot of it is doing spreadsheets, charts – post-processing.”

That post-processing reveals a lot of details about the complexity of modern cellular networks.

The amount of voice and data crossing the network ebbs and flows. It has some certain predictable patterns – 5 p.m. Friday is the busiest time for the system as a whole, said Enright – but also plenty of special events.

Jim Coll, network operations manager at the company’s switch in Hooksett, a huge building that handles all cell-phone traffic for New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, noted some examples: Verizon Wireless knows to ramp up network strength around college towns in late August, in preparation for the annual deluge of cell-phone-dependent students. It also has to shift systems for one-time events such as the Loudon Classic at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Laconia Motorcycle Week.

Handling those shifting loads has led the company to develop a host of portable devices to extend and support the network as need. Oddly enough, they all seem to favor acronyms from the animal kingdom, including GOAT (generator on a trailer), CROW (cell repeater on wheels) and PIG (plug-in generator).

These are just accessories to the network as a whole, of course. Verizon Wireless claims to have spent $2.6 billion on network improvements over the past decade in New England alone as the industry transitioned from analog to digital and then to wireless broadband. The money is visible in their huge switching office, which bristles with redundant connections (fiber-optic connections run in both directions down the street, in case a pole gets hit by a errant truck) and power supplies that include a 1.35-megawatt generator as big as an RV. The building holds literally hundreds of computer switches that take a variety of signals, some carried from other towers on copper or fiber-optic lines, others beamed into microwave and cell-phone antenna, and makes them compatible for the telephone system.

The building, opened in 2005, even includes thousands of square feet of empty space, because Verizon Wireless assumes that traffic in northern New England will eventually grow to the point that it’ll have to put in another switching system.

The company has 10 of those in New England, including four in Massachusetts.

So it seems likely that for at least the foreseeable future, people like Bushey will continue to be cell phone’s ears on the ground – whether you can hear them now or not.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.