You wouldn't recognize any of these unmarked cars if they drove past you on the street unless you were trained to look for the outside clues: on the roof lies a GPS module in concert with several black nubs, each one acting as its own phone antenna. If you look close enough at the back windows, you may be able to make out the multitudes of USB data sticks taped to them. All of these elements are crucial for Verizon in order to collect real-time data on how its network stacks up against the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, not to mention regional carriers such as Cricket and MetroPCS. Thus, each test car is equipped with phones that work on almost every network and try each one out thousands of times a year. The company's goal? To ensure that it maintains a standard of excellence in its network performance for both its voice and data quality. So how does this all happen? Read on past the break to find out what's inside the car.
Verizon test car at CTIA
First, let's list off a few essential statistics. Together, this nationwide fleet of 100 vehicles travel over a million miles per year. Vehicles in Southern California, specifically, drive 7400 miles and make 29,000 voice calls and 142,000 data calls per quarter -- that translates into 3.5 million voice call attempts and more than 19 million data tests across the country. No phone is left unturned, either -- each car uses a wide variety of handsets and data devices (using everything from 2G to 4G, including LTE) to perform these tests, each using a dedicated antenna on the top of the roof or on the window. When we asked how Verizon gets its competitors' devices, we learned that each one is purchased at full retail cost with an obligatory data plan. Naturally, the amount of data each smartphone and internet stick use is rather hefty; considering several carriers use tiered plans, we can only imagine the kind of bills that show up in Dan Mead's mailbox.
There are typically anywhere between eight and twelve devices making calls simultaneously, each one set to last for a specific duration of time. Verizon measures both inbound and outbound calls, with every single piece of correspondence consisting of automated voices yapping back and forth at each other (sadly, "can you hear me now?" wasn't used at all). Each time, location is tracked, data speeds from every network and radio band imaginable are measured, and dropped calls are closely monitored using a series of laptops both within the car and on the other end of the line (a special landline also operated by Big Red that collects information). This data, once collected, gives the carrier a clear idea of which areas of their coverage need the most help, and where it should be focusing its investment and growth.
We were only able to take a limited number of pictures of the operating equipment, as most of it is completely proprietary. We managed, however, to snap a few nice images -- found in the above gallery -- nonetheless that show off the array of items these test men (and women) use every day to keep a close eye on their network. A million miles per year guzzles a heckuva lot of gas, but there's at least 90 million people out there that reap the benefits.
Zachary Lutz and Myriam Joire contributed to this hands-on.