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This article by Doug Dixon was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Princeton, Can You Hear Me

On television, the guy in Verizon’s "Can You Hear

Me Now?" commercial always has a satisfied look, since he gets

clear reception no matter where he is standing. But even here in the

Princeton area there are roads and neighborhoods where cellular reception

can fade away, and you can’t hear me at all.

While our area dodged the recent electrical blackout, we continue

to become more dependent on cell phones and good connections for both

business and our personal lives. New integrated devices combine a

cell phone with a Palm organizer 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

recent rainy afternoon. 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 10 seconds

of driving.

Mislevey explained that cell signals can be received from towers as

far as 10 to 12 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 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 10 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 10 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 improved. "I find several problems each month,"

he says, "from optimizing a new tower to a one-time problem, a

piece of equipment that went down. The system is not perfect, not

inside everybody’s house. We need to make adjustments."

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. "But

if you already have three active signals, then more power can cause

interference."

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 19 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 manager and ran a clean room, the people in

white suits. Agere got out of manufacturing in the U.S., and closed

its plants in Reading and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Coming to Verizon

was a natural progression from making components to working with them."

Mislevey, whose father worked in the tool and die industry, 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.

While with AT&T, Mislevey earned his bachelors in business

administration, from Albright College in Reading. "I worked on

it off and on," he says. "It took nine 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 nation’s 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 along Exit 8 as well as portions of Routes 130,

571, 133, and 3.

Princeton Junction on Clarksville Road (September, 2002),

to improve coverage along Routes 1, 571, and 535.

Lawrenceville, off Route 1 (December, 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 are also 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.

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," 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."

For more on wireless technology and products, see Doug Dixon’s

Manifest Technology site at www.manifest-tech.com


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