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Princeton, Can You Hear Me? (9/2003)
by Douglas Dixon
On television, the guy in Verizon's "Can You Hear Me Now?" commercial always has a satisfied look, as he gets clear reception no matter where he is standing. But even here in the Princeton NJ area there are roads and neighborhoods where cellular reception can fade away, and you can't hear me at all.
Meanwhile, we continue to become more dependent on cell phones and good connections for both business and our personal lives. New integrated devices combine cell phones with handheld organizers to provide constant access to phone, voice mail, text messaging, E-mail, and even the Web, no matter where you are traveling. Whether you regard this constant connectivity as a blessing or a curse, it does depend on the magic of wireless networks to blanket the country with a strong signal, a dial tone available wherever we happen to be.
To see this magic in action, and to check out what was going on in some areas with difficult reception around Princeton, I took a ride with Marty Mislevey, the real "Can You Hear Me Now?" guy. Mislevey hits the road in his tricked-out Verizon test vehicle, driving 2,000 miles a month to test the quality of cell phone reception throughout the Philadelphia tri-state region, including New Jersey, Delaware, and eastern Pennsylvania.
I caught up with Mislevey at the Verizon store in Mercer Mall on a rainy July afternoon this summer. His test car was parked out front, a Ford Taurus station wagon loaded up with what Verizon describes as $250,000 worth of sophisticated test equipment.
Mislevey opened the back to show the test gear: two silver cases, each containing four mobile phones. These were wired to a Dell Latitude laptop mounted in the front of the car to coordinate and monitor the eight phones.
Two of the phones tested Verizon service, digital and analog, and the other were for AT&T, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint, and Voice Stream service.
To provide better reception, each phone also was connected to one of the eight phone antennas studding the roof of the Taurus. The car also included two Global Positioning System (GPS) units to record location during the testing.
We then squeezed into the front seats of the Taurus to see the laptop mounted on the dashboard. The system tests cell phone reception by continuously dialing outgoing calls. The system checks whether the calls were connected successfully, and whether the connection was held during the duration of the call (two and a half minutes, matching the average length of calls according to the Verizon billing data).
Verizon also tests the quality of the connection by having the system transmit spoken sentences on the line, which are then stored at the receiving system in Plymouth Meeting and analyzed by comparing the voice quality to a set of five known samples, rated from very good to poor. These tests use what are known as the "Harvard sentences," a collection of phonetically balanced sentences that measure a large range of different qualities in the human voice. These were originally published in 1969 as the "IEEE recommended practice for speech quality measurements."
Since it can be annoying to have eight phones chattering in the back of the car, Mislevey typically listens to only one of them while he is driving, although it's still disconcerting to be interrupted by random phrases such as "These days, a chicken leg is a rare dish" while you are trying to have a conversation.
Mislevey then fired up the tests on the laptop to start the phones dialing. The main laptop display showed a grid with a column for each phone, totaling attempted calls, lost or dropped calls, and ineffective attempts (i.e., call time out, no service, busy signal, fast busy). A second window displayed the signal strength for the cell towers detected at our current position. Mislevey explained that cell phones actually look for up two four signals at a time. Each call is routed through up to three different towers, so the phone can combine them into a composite signal for better quality service. The phone also is constantly using its fourth receiver to look for a better signal that it can switch in for the call.
As we headed north on Route 1 from Mercer Mall towards Princeton, the laptop display showed good quality signals from multiple towers. I also was checking the display against a Kyocera cell phone in my lap, which did not have the advantage of being connected to a roof antenna. While my handheld phone showed a strong signal along Route 1, the laptop display was changing dramatically as the signal strength from different towers jumped up and down as quickly as within ten seconds of driving.
Mislevey explained that cell signals can be received from towers as far as ten to twelve miles away, but the signal strength depends on the terrain, and can be blocked or reduced by buildings and foliage. "When the leaves are out it weakens the signal," he says," but only if they are in a direct line from a tower. You can still have a good connection from one of the three signals." Otherwise, cell reception does not vary significantly with the seasons or temperature, although it is affected by heavy rain.
We swung around the large Sarnoff Corporation building at Washington Road to see this line-of-sight effect, as one signal dropped precipitously on the south side of the building, and then another dropped on the north side at the same time that we picked up a new tower. But meanwhile, the signals from the other available towers were strong enough that my handheld phone continued to show a good signal.
From Route 1, we then headed up Harrison Street towards Princeton, to check out a problematic area just below Nassau Street. Area residents had observed dramatic differences in signal quality, so much so that they needed to stand in the door at one end of the house in order to make calls. As we crossed the canal on Harrison we saw the third signal drop off, and then saw the second signal drop very low as we drove up to Nassau. This area clearly has difficult reception, as confirmed by the low signal strength showing on my handheld phone. However, the bank of test phones continued to dial though, assisted by the rooftop antennas.
We crossed Nassau and continued to the Princeton Shopping Center, and then turned left and headed out to a known black hole of cell reception, across Route 206 and up Cherry Hill Road toward Montgomery Township. We indeed got into trouble as we crested the hill and started down past Stuart Road to Cherry Valley Road. The laptop display showed that we were still getting three signals, but they were all marginal at best. My handheld phone lost service connection completely, and several of the non-Verizon phones also had trouble making connections. Even the GPS system chimed in to report a low signal, due to all the trees overhead. This situation lasted for a couple minutes as we descended to Cherry Valley Road, but by the time we reached the bottom of the hill my handheld phone had acquired a signal again.
We then turned right and continued along the Montgomery - Princeton border out to Route 206, and then headed south back into downtown Princeton. We then turned left on Nassau up to Washington, and went back down to take Route 1 back to our starting point. The cell service stayed good throughout this part of the trip, although the signal strength continued to vary dramatically within less than a minute of driving, sometimes with two strong signals, and other times with one or two more marginal signals.
After we arrived back at Mercer Mall, Mislevey shut down the tests and reviewed the results. In 18 call attempts during the drive, the laptop showed the digital Verizon phone had no problems, and the analog phone had one dropped call. The other digital services showed one or two dropped or busy calls, and the other analog service showed seven time outs and one drop. That Cherry Valley black hole strikes again!
Mislevey has been on the road for Verizon doing this testing for the past nine months. He spends ten days each month driving specific routes, following the most heavily traveled roadways during peak hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), based on Depart of Transportation areas with the top ten percent of traffic in each county. He then typically drives another five days doing additional testing, including reverse testing of calls from land lines to his mobile phones.
Mislevey then analyzes and maps this data, looking for areas that need to be
Mislevey explained that cell service can degrade in an area for a number of reasons, depending on traffic, weather, and the time of year. Growth can lead to congestion of the available service, requiring more capacity in an area. This can be improved by adding more service to existing towers, or adjusting the angle or power of the existing antennas. The long-term solution, of course, is to build a new tower, but that takes longer and requires prioritizing needs throughout the region.
The issue in optimizing a new tower is balancing enough signals in combination with neighboring sites. "The phone takes readings and reports conditions to the site," says Mislevey, "and the site tells it what to do, which neighbors to look at." With fewer sites on the neighbor list, the phone can check quicker. But without enough neighbors, the phone can never hand off and lose the connection.
The signal strength also needs to be balanced. "It's a fine line you walk," says Mislevey, The power may need to be boosted to expand the area that it reaches. "But if you already have three active signals, then more power can cause interference."
While Verizon has real-time monitoring systems that will generate an alarm on a total failure, such as dropped calls suddenly increasing dramatically, Mislevey also listens to the Verizon digital phone to check for more subtle issues as he drives. "The call may go through," he says, "but I may hear clicking, or occasional noise on the line. Or, if the call is dropped, I may hear something before the drop. This may mean that a board or chip is going bad."
Beyond his driving skills, Mislevey applies his electrical engineering background to this job in testing and analyzing the cell connections. Before coming to Verizon, he had nineteen years of experience in electronics and technical management with Western Electric, as it morphed to AT&T, Lucent, and then Lucent's spin-off of its microlectronics business to Agere Systems.
"We made IC chips for the telecom industry, and also fiber optics,"
he says. "I was a
Mislevey because interested in electrical engineering in high school. "It started with a science project wiring an electrical motor," he says. He then took three years of vo-tech, followed by two years for his associates degree in electrical engineering at Lincoln Technical Institute, in Allentown, PA.
While with AT&T, Mislevey earned his bachelors in business administration, from Albright College in Reading, PA. "I worked on it off and on," he says. "It took 9 years to complete. We had two kids along the way, and I was working full time."
"It helped with my position at Agere," says Mislevey, "accounting, forecasting, and managing people, personnel, hiring, interviewing. And at Verizon it helps in understanding how business works, managing costs, working with people."
Mislevey's work is never done. "Verizon keeps expanding the system," he says, "and my job is to keep testing."
Verizon Wireless claims to be the nations' leading provider of wireless communications, with the largest nationwide wireless voice and data network and 34.6 million customers. It has invested more than $8 billion over the last two years in its nationwide network. Recent cell sites Verizon has added in the Princeton area include:
- Hightstown near Exit 8 of the NJ Turnpike (March 2003), to improve coverage
- Princeton Junction on Clarksville Road (Sept. 2002), to improve coverage
- Lawrenceville, off Route 1 (Dec. 2000)
Verizon and its competitors also continue to add new services and pricing plans. Prices for national calling plans have dropped, to $35 a month for Verizon's America's Choice plan with 300 minutes of talk time. Plans are also adding additional night and weekend minutes, and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes. Some companies also are experimenting with allowing minutes to roll over from month to month.
These calling plans, however, lock customers in with annual contracts. In addition, the wireless carriers also have sought to prevent customers switching to a different carrier by preventing them from keeping their same mobile phone number. If you switch carriers, you will also have to switch to a new number in the block allocated to the new carrier. The Federal Communications Commission has been moving the industry towards implementing number portability, and Verizon recently broke ranks with the other major carriers to support it.
But while wireless number portability is scheduled to go into effect beginning in late November, do not expect the carriers to make this easy to do.
Meanwhile, the carriers are also expanding and upgrading their networks to provide next-generation services, data services, and faster connections. With more processing power and colorful displays, cell phones can be used to read and send E-mail, browse simple web sites, play games, customize your ring tones and store and play songs, download and display photos, and even shoot and share your own photos and videos. In August, Verizon also began its new nationwide "Push to Talk" service, joining Nextel in providing direct walkie-talkie connections for a family or a work group. Your choice in cell phones just got harder: plain or fancy, blank and white or color display, voice or data, text messaging or web, Palm organizer or digital camera or walkie-talkie.
But all these great services depend on the baseline capability to make and hold a connection. The most eye-opening aspect of my ride-along was seeing how cell signals change dramatically over short distances, even when traveling relatively open areas along Route 1. As you may have already observed, the service can be tremendously different on different sides of a building, or up on a second floor.
Be aware that you will not hear a digital signal degrade gracefully; either it is strong enough for the phone to recover, or it is gone, in which case you will start to hear gaps in the conversation when sub-second portions of the signal are lost. The phone will keep trying to hold the connection through drop-outs, but will eventually give up when the loss is too much.
The trick to using your cell phone when traveling in a car in a problematic area, then, is to pull out the antenna to boost the reception, and maybe even position the phone higher in your car. With these techniques, I even can traverse the black hole of Cherry Valley Road and come out the other side with signal intact, at least some of the time.
Meanwhile, Marty Mislevey will be on the road, making sure the connections are holding strong. And he's not alone. "There's 51 people across the country doing this job," he says. "The official title is Baseline Technician, but people just call me Test Dude. People think this job came from the commercial, but it's the other way around."
"I'll be at this job a while longer," says Mislevey, "it's very interesting to me. I dig into problems and keep learning so much more. It's not close to boring yet, the technology keeps moving."