Verizon tester checks Vineyard networks
Yes, Vineyarders, there really is a Verizon Wireless test man. However, Marc LeFevre, the real life counterpart to the actor in the television commercials, says he has uttered the sentence "Can you hear me now?" only one time - and that's because a friend tricked him into saying it by pretending they had a bad connection.
Mr. LeFevre invited The Times to join him on August 7 as he drove around the Island testing wireless network strength not only for Verizon Wireless but also its competitors. Wendy Bulawa, a spokesperson for Verizon Wireless, also came along for the ride.
Mr. LeFevre and three other New England-based test engineers cover a region including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts (including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket), New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Verizon Wireless currently employs 98 test men and women nationwide, who drive more than 1,000,000 miles a year to measure network performance. Their test vehicles cost about $300,000, including sophisticated equipment and computers that collectively make more than 3,000,000 voice call attempts and more than 16 million data tests annually.
Verizon Wireless test man Mark LeFevre readies his laptop computers to monitor network performance at the start of an Island test drive. Photos by Susan Safford
The data is used not only to compare Verizon Wireless against competitors, but also as a tool to help engineers plan the company's annual network improvement program, including placement of new cell sites and expansion of existing cell phone service.
Last year alone, Verizon Wireless New England invested about $320 million regionally to increase network coverage and capacity and to add new services, according a press release.
"Verizon Wireless spends a significant amount of money on the network, and the goal of testing is about providing reliable service," said Ms. Bulawa. "There is no point in having a $200 or $300 cell phone if you can't depend on being able to use it."
A metal box in the back of the test vehicle cradles the test cell phones in separate compartments to prevent signal interference and measure data.
Mr. LeFevre said his job as a test man attracts a lot of curiosity. With no lettering on the outside of his white Trailblazer identifying it as a Verizon Wireless test vehicle, he gets stares and questions from people when they spot the antennas on the roof, a global positioning system (GPS) on the dashboard, and two operating laptop computers on the front passenger seat.
Massachusetts state troopers have stopped him twice to check out the antennas, and many people, including employees at drive-through windows and neighbors, have asked him if he works for the government.
Mr. LeFevre lives in Fitchburg with his wife and 16-month-old son. After starting with the network facilities group, he joined the network operations testing team two years ago. He has never had an accident while driving all over Massachusetts and averaging 5,000 miles over three weeks each month.
Putting Island signals
to the test
Equipment in the back of Mr. LeFevre's test vehicle records voice and signal data. Special metal boxes cradle a mix of Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, AT&T (formerly Cingular), SprintNextel, and Unicel and U.S. Cellular (which do not have coverage on the Island) cell phones in separate compartments to record voice and signal data. Two data phones and six data cards also monitor signals related to text and picture messaging, and high-speed broadband wireless service, an upgrade Verizon Wireless is making on the Vineyard right now.
The metal boxes block signals to the cell phones, which are plugged into the antennae system on the roof, Mr. Lefebvre explained. As he drives, tests are constantly running, taking a "snapshot" of a network signal every second. The monitoring equipment also measures the car's speed and whether the driver is wearing a seatbelt.
Mr. LeFevre's Vineyard routes included a large loop around the Island and then an interior loop through Vineyard Haven, the outskirts of Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs.
Starting at the sea wall in Vineyard Haven, Mr. LeFevre stopped at the turnout to initiate the cell phones to make configuration calls to two computers in his Woburn office. Data received from automatically dialed test calls and network signals during his test drives is broken down and analyzed by special software once a month.
Once set into motion around 12:45 pm on Tuesday, the cell phones began automatically making two-and-a-half minute recorded voice calls, the length of an average phone call, that continued throughout the network quality test drive.
The calls transmit eight different recorded computer-generated Harvard sentences, a collection of sample phrases used for standardized testing, to his office computer to evaluate the sound quality of the wireless phones (see sidebar). Each successful call is evaluated for quality, clarity, and enunciation.
One laptop screen displayed a grid showing total attempted calls, ineffective attempts (blocked calls, busy signal, call time out), failed, and dropped calls for each cell phone. A failed call is one in which someone dials a number, hits send, and nothing happens. A dropped call is one that abruptly ends.
Red bars indicated areas with network problems. A satisfied smile on Mr. LeFevre's face made it easy to tell when a red bar was not a Verizon Wireless phone call.
Mr. LeFevre said that sometimes when test engineers go back to an area to try and recreate a "drop," they might find it's okay, depending on the season. Something as simple as leaves on trees may be the problem.
After a problem area is detected two or three times consecutively, Mr. LeFevre said the Verizon Wireless performance group determines whether another cell site is needed or if the existing ones need tweaking by adjusting the direction of an antenna or boosting power levels.
Verizon Wireless conducts an Island test drive once a year, Ms. Bulawa explained. If the company is amid upgrades or expansion, additional testing may be done.
Last summer two Times reporters and three interns conducted cell phone testing of their own, although less technically accurate than Mr. LeFevre's, by driving around and stopping at 21 locations to check signal reception on four different cell phones.
Ms. Bulawa said that Verizon Wireless officials were pleased that the results, published in an article on August 17, 2006, showed their company as one of two top performers. Last week's test drive again demonstrated good performance by Verizon Wireless.
Verizon Wireless does not release proprietary information such as the number of cell sites in a geographic area for competitive reasons, according to Richard Enright, director of network performance in New England, in response to questions a few days after the test drive.
However, Mr. Enright added, in a statement e-mailed to Ms. Bulawa, "...the most highly traveled and population-rich areas of Martha's Vineyard do receive Verizon Wireless service."
Moreover, Mr. Enright said, work and construction currently are underway to bring a high-speed Verizon Wireless broadband network service to Island customers, which should be operational between six to twelve months from now.
Among its many features, Ms. Bulawa pointed out, the wireless mobile broadband network service offers the ability to connect to the Internet via laptops or personal digital assistants (PDAs). The high-speed network also powers Verizon Wireless's V CAST multimedia service, which offers downloads of music, video clips, entertainment programming, and 3-D games to wireless phones, for additional fees.
Over the last several years, sometimes in reaction to proposals for cell towers, the Island's six towns created zoning bylaws specifically designed to address wireless communications facilities. Tower height limits vary from town to town, as do setback requirements.
Recently town officials in Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury have been meeting with representatives of various companies to explore the possibility of a distributed antenna system (DAS). Considered a less obtrusive wireless communication system, a DAS uses fiber optic cable and a network of radio access nodes connected to small antennas set on telephone or other poles to distribute cellular telephone signals. Verizon Wireless and other cellular phone companies would pay to use the DAS.
"While there is a place for distributed antenna systems, we are highly selective as to when and where we apply that technology," Mr. Enright said in his e-mailed statement. "In the case of the western parts of Martha's Vineyard, we don't believe a distributed antenna system would be as effective as alternate wireless structure solutions," such as standard cell phone towers.
He added, "We would both welcome and encourage dialogue with the towns in that area prior to the adoption of any specific plans."