Wireless carriers in the United States remain entrenched in a never-ending battle over which company has the "best" network. Which is fastest? Which offers the most coverage and is most reliable? Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all take turns claiming supremacy in their TV and web ads. Verizon's latest campaign has a rather simple tagline: "better matters." It sticks to the long-running perception that Verizon has the best mobile network in the US — even if its rivals would object.
To reinforce that strong reputation, Verizon recently invited press to its device test lab in Bedminster, New Jersey. The building was once home to Verizon's main headquarters, which is now a few miles down the road in Basking Ridge. So this office space has been repurposed to run through over a dozen critical tests that devices (smartphones, tablets, IoT gadgets, etc.) must pass before being allowed to run on Verizon's network.
Some are the type you'd expect; Verizon's engineers are obsessed with network performance, so they stuff devices into a big metal box to prevent any outside interference and gauge pure data reception, VoLTE call quality, noise cancellation, and so on. The rooms themselves are shielded from wireless signals, allowing Verizon to emulate its 2G, 3G, and LTE networks on actual hardware — without letting those devices onto the same network customers are using. Another test room deals with emergency services and ensuring that all devices exceed requirements for putting you in touch with 911. Next to these vault-like labs are plenty of cubicles and your everyday office meeting rooms, so there are signs on the outside that flash red when a live test is being conducted.
Of course, device manufacturers carry out plenty of these tests themselves; Verizon's engineers said it's "rare" for a product to flunk once it's at the network certification stage, and they're usually around "95 percent" there by the time they get to this important step. But that doesn't prevent the carrier from doing its own endurance testing, like dropping phones on the ground repeatedly, or zapping batteries to make sure they're compliant and won't blow up in your jeans.
I don't want to make Verizon sound too special here; its main US rivals all certainly have testing labs of their own, with similarly high standards for smartphones and other devices to meet. But there are definitely some hard working people trying to make your phone work the best that it can. If you've ever wondered what that looks like at the largest US carrier, let's take a tour.
- You don't often see rooms like this next to cubicles.
- Lab director Sam Oommen opens one of the shield room doors.
- Verizon makes it obvious when testing is underway.
- This LG smartphone is being tested to make sure it meets emergency / 911 standards.
- Verizon emulates its network for devices in testing; they don't run on the same one customers are on.
- The carrier tests video call quality. Video chats are one of the "advance calling" features made possible by VoLTE.
- Verizon tests VoLTE calls to ensure a smooth handoff between Wi-Fi and the cellular network.
- "We can control what type of service we want the device to see," says Kevin Caballero, one of Verizon's test engineers. "Good coverage, bad coverage, moving coverage, we can emulate everything we’d like."
- It looks like something from 1940, yet it's an essential tool for Verizon.
- The lab tests devices both in pre-production and after they've shipped. Major software updates must go through the process again.
- Verizon uses special, lab-only SIM cards for devices that are being evaluated.
- Who knew signal analyzers could have so many button?
- It typically takes around four weeks for devices to pass through the lab.
- A smartphone's noise cancellation is put to the test in this room, where the speakers blare out typical real-world noise (crowded bar, city streets, etc.)
- The test dummies speak nonsensical sentences, but they contain words that can be challenging to hear in loud areas.
- Admit it: they're a little bit creepy looking.
- An outside look at the noise cancellation tests.
- Oommen explaining the technology inside one of the many shield rooms.
- Erik Van Treuren leads "accelerated life testing," which means he gets to drop phones 100 times each.
- The machine drops phones from about pocket height, and cameras record the results in slow motion.
- This machine shocks a smartphone's battery to ensure it meets specifications and won't explode in your pocket.
- Another anechoic chamber that's used to gauge cellular performance.
- "It becomes a real challenge to fit everything into the small real estate of the device, and at the same time, meet the performance objectives of Verizon," says engineer Raafat Kamel.
- There's not much standing room in this one; I almost fell into the blue pit of spiked foam.
- No device lab would be complete without a "museum" of handsets past and present.
- The HTC Thunderbolt, Verizon's first LTE smartphone.
- Motorola's old classic, the Razr.
- A collection of forgettable early 2000s flip phones.