Firm's gadget-filled vans tests network quality for cellular, mobile broadband providers

STERLING, VA. SEPT. 28. Paul Carter, CEO, Global Wireless Solutions in a van used for monitoring strength of networks on Sept. 28, 2010.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )
STERLING, VA. SEPT. 28. Paul Carter, CEO, Global Wireless Solutions in a van used for monitoring strength of networks on Sept. 28, 2010.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey Macmillan - Jeffrey Macmillan For Washington Post)
By Steven Overly
Monday, October 11, 2010

The minivans parked outside Global Wireless Solutions' Dulles headquarters look like those found in parking lots and driveways everywhere, except for the dozen or so stout, black antennas affixed to each roof.

Peeling back the sliding door, however, reveals an intricate system of cellular phones and broadband Internet devices all synchronized to repeatedly make phone calls, receive e-mails or download mobile Web pages for hours on end.

Designed to test network quality and accessibility for the country's major cellular and mobile broadband providers, the technology in the company's vans has grown more detailed as smartphones have evolved and become more popular.

"We're trying to simulate the subscriber experience as best we can," said founder and chief executive Paul Carter. "It is challenging now that you can do even more with your device."

Carter began Global Wireless Solutions in 1996, when cellphones were just phones.

The explosion in the use of data-intensive applications can cause the airwaves to become clogged, and service speed and quality may lag as a result. Though the federal government and companies are considering solutions to free up more bandwidth, a quick and permanent fix seems unlikely.

"As technology evolved, the need for data increased, and I think that's a linear progression," Drissa Coulibaly, the company's operations manager, said during a drive in Northern Virginia. "These are the finite resources they have; how much can I squeeze it to get more?"

Much of Global Wireless Solutions' business -- Carter places annual revenue in the neighborhood of $35 million -- comes from helping to answer that question. Each year, company drivers log 1 million miles as they meander through cellular markets in the United States and abroad. As the minivan moves, laptops in the back seat monitor about 15 phones or USB Internet cards. The networks in large markets, such as the Washington region, will be tested three times a year for about 20 days at a time.

As Coulibaly demonstrates an actual drive, inane banter loops in two-minute intervals in the back of his van.

These days the chicken leg is a rare dish, says a male voice.

A female voice responds: The jacket is hung on the back of a wide chair.

Known as "Harvard sentences," these sample phrases were crafted to capture the inflections of the human voice. They're used by Global Wireless Solutions and others to test connectivity and call quality on most major networks, including those of Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. Meanwhile, a row of USB Internet cards are used to test broadband latency and download speed.

The result is reams of data that Global Wireless Solutions pairs with location points to determine where a network's signal is weakest or where data throughput slows to a trickle. Carter said the company does not disclose specific information without permission from providers, but said Verizon and AT&T rate highest in the D.C. region for voice reliability and that AT&T has the fastest overall data throughput.

Carter added that his company differentiates itself from competitors by partnering data analysis with suggestions on how to better engineer the networks' cell towers. For that, he draws on experience from the years he worked at Chantilly-based LCC International, when the company's core business was to design and analyze some of the country's initial wireless networks.

The mobile landscape has changed considerably since then, and as major carriers look to unroll 4G coverage and consumers seek features like real-time video chat and interactive gaming, Carter doesn't expect that to ebb anytime soon.

"All that stuff is going to really be a reality and you're going to want to do more with your phone than you've ever done before," Carter said. "I think from a user's perspective, life is just going to keep getting better and better."

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