Red means go for cellular techs

Published 9:49 am Thursday, April 8, 2010

Craig Schnaars and Jon Taggett spend the majority of their time visiting their backyard.

However, this backyard isn’t typical of the ones found in residential areas. There are no fences, no swing sets, no neighbors with to chat away the hours.

For Schnaars and Taggett, their “backyard” covers from Maysville (just north of Jacksonville), to the Virginia state line, west to I-95 and back south once again to Onslow County.

Every day, these two system performance engineers can be spotted inside their U.S. Cellular service vehicles where they keep a close watch on mobile monitoring devices that allows the network to operate at peak potential. They constantly test for signal strength and call quality.

“I log roughly 2,500 miles over a two-week period,” Taggett said as he kept one eye peeled to the road and the other glancing at a laptop that was angled for easy viewing in the front seat of his vehicle. “That’s a pretty typical schedule for all of our performance technicians.”

From the driver’s seat of a U.S. Cellular SUV, engineers, such as Taggett and Schnaars, operate state-of-the-art technology, including mapping and diagnostic equipment, computers and cell phones. The equipment runs a series of digital signal tests – indicated by red-colored bar graphs that move up and down according to strength, as well as pre-recorded, phonetically perfect phrases, such as “a cup of sugar makes sweet fudge” and “the juice of lemons makes fine punch,” to measure voice quality and clarity. This also helps identify any rough hand-offs of calls from one cell tower to the next.

“There are a lot of times that we can catch a glitch in the system and quickly address it before the customer calls to report a problem,” Schnaars noted. “We don’t work a typical nine-to-five day; we take pride in working seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we do it all with one thing in mind – providing our customers with a reliable and highly efficient digital voice and data network.”

“Our customers go everywhere, so our engineers have to go everywhere,” said Marcel Bekers, U.S. Cellular’s director of sales in eastern North Carolina. “Our system performance engineers may drive as many as 400 miles in one day to gather information on how our network is performing. They are on the roads to spot and fix problems to make sure our customers have a strong network.”

Bekers continued, “While the engineer drives the streets and highways, the phones in the car automatically place calls. The road test information helps show the hiccups in the system and that comprises the engineer’s to-do list. This tells them whether environmental effects, such as heavy wind or ice, might have altered either the pitch or angle of an antenna. Sometimes, newly blossomed trees, the growth of vegetation or construction of new buildings can have an effect on coverage.”

Most of the time, the solution lies in guiding an antenna a few degrees in a different direction to fill the zone where the signal is weak. In other cases, the solution may involve raising the power of the antennas by a few watts. And sometimes, additional sites are proposed to assist with high call volumes or less than optimum coverage.

“Striking a balance is sometimes the best option because getting a better signal for one area can negatively affect another,” Bekers said. “Creating the best network in North Carolina is a hard, behind-the-scenes job. We rely on our engineers to ensure that our customers can enjoy the mobility they do now with their cell phones.”

‘Mobile Marines’

Schnaars, a native of New Jersey, joined the U.S. Cellular team in 1981. Taggett, who grew up in northern Maine, came aboard in 1994. Both are former U.S. Marines.

“Maybe that’s why we both take so much pride in our work,” Schnaars said. “Most of the men and women I know who were once members of our nation’s armed forces and are now employed in the private sector have a lot of pride in their jobs.”

Unlocking two gates to gain access to the equipment building of the U.S. Cellular tower on Brinkleyville Road just north of Ahoskie, Taggett opened the door to a temperature-controlled room full of high-tech gadgetry.

All cell tower sites are DC powered, meaning typical AC electrical current constantly flows to a bank of batteries which actually operates the system. If the power fails, a generator automatically kicks in.

In company terms, the equipment constitutes a BTS (Base Terminal Station). Basically, it’s a central hub that receives calls via a microwave link to that tower and sends them, by radio relay, to a regional hub in Greenville. Due to the heavy call volume at the Ahoskie tower, there are six radio relay units switching those messages.

What is so amazing about the technology is that between the time a caller has engaged the “send” button on their cell phone to the time the receiver’s phone rings, the call has been relayed from Ahoskie to Greenville (complete with identifying the caller as a U.S. Cellular customer) and then pinpointing the location of the receiver.

“The person receiving the call could be standing right next to the person placing the call or in Tulsa, Oklahoma; our vast network will find that person and link the call or text message to that phone in the blink of an eye,” Schnaars said.

While the mobile efforts of Taggett and Schnaars are vital in the overall efficiency of the network, so is routine maintenance of the cell tower’s equipment. All sites are constantly monitored by computers for glitches. Additionally, U.S. Cellular personnel perform bi-monthly maintenance at all sites.

Meanwhile, the company is always seeking to expand their network in an effort to provide better service. They recently opened a cell site near Murfreesboro to improve call quality for its customers in Hertford County. The new site will provide additional capacity and improve in-building coverage in the Murfreesboro area. This site will also improve coverage between Murfreesboro and Conway along Highways 158 and 258.

The new site complements U.S. Cellular’s statewide network of more than 460 towers. Those towers, complete with the company’s recent launch of their 3G Mobile Broadband network, also serve as magnets to attract economic development, especially in the case of rural areas.

With 3G speeds, browsing the Web on smartphones is very similar to the experience on a desktop computer. Web pages open faster and customers can send and receive large e-mail attachments. Downloads take less time and picture and video messages are delivered more quickly.

But none of it works efficiently without a team of dedicated employees, such as Taggett and Schnaars. For them, red means go.