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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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
to improve coverage along Exit 8 as well as portions of Routes 130,
571, 133, and 3.
to improve coverage along Routes 1, 571, and 535.
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."
Manifest Technology site at www.manifest-tech.com
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