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Telstra's mobile testing lab in the spotlight

ZDNet takes a look inside where Telstra tests the latest smartphones, tablets and dongles.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor on

It is the kind of large, plain, unassuming building you would miss if you weren't paying attention, but deep inside Telstra's exchange building in the heart of Western Sydney is the home of the company's mobile device testing lab where all new smartphones, tablets, and dongles are tested before they're approved for sale.

Once inside the building, we are taken through cream-coloured corridors that twist and turn, and seem to go on forever. It wouldn't look out of place in a hospital, save for all the copper network equipment and posters from last century with women with very big hair talking into phones that look like walkie-talkies.

Telstra's director of networks and commercial planning, Anthony Goonan, said that this facility began close to 30 years ago and evolved into Telstra's Mobile Innovation Lab. It began when mobile phones were considered "niche" products and he said that the company still has documents that predicted that only 100,000 people in Australia would have mobile phones by the year 2000.

But in 2012, Telstra now has over 13 million mobile customers and the company has to ensure that each device can work on Telstra's network, which now expands past 7,000 base stations across Australia.

"It spawned this need to test, not only the software from device manufacturers, but also its interaction with the device," he said.

Telstra needs to make sure that not only the device, but the software included on it, works across its network, in different spectrum bands, and across the 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.

Telstra's testers. (Credit: Telstra)

In 2011, Telstra tested 70 devices — including 39 handsets and 31 mobile broadband devices — 97 software updates, and 57 product approvals. This year, so far, the company has tested 21 devices — 14 handsets and seven broadband devices — 29 software updates, and 57 product approvals.

Just outside the main lab, Telstra has two rows of desks with around 20 employees lined up who put new smartphones through their paces.

Inside the lab, Telstra has set up a pool of radio base stations operating across different frequencies, including 3G at 850MHz and 900Mhz and 4G in 1800Mhz. The company has also been testing 4G long-term evolution in the 2100MHz, 900MHz, and 2500MHz spectrum bands, the latter of which Telstra will be hoping to secure a portion of in the spectrum auction in April 2013. The company has yet to test the 700MHz spectrum band.

Network gear
Telstra's 2G, 3G, and 4G network equipment. (Credit: Telstra)

Goonan said that the network in the lab was contained within the Telstra building, but said that it did have the potential to confuse people's personal mobile phones when inside the building.

The giant metal container
Mobile network signals will struggle to get in this box. (Credit: Telstra)

"When you leave, you may need to turn your phone off and on again," he said.

The lab contains two big rooms for the testing of the products. The first metal container, which looks like the meat fridge in a supermarket, is where the network signal is fed in, and once the door is closed, network coverage drops off completely until Telstra decides what signals to feed in.

A tester in the lab. (Credit: Telstra)

"We set it up like it is other countries of the world, so it doesn't interrupt the public network, because you can't stop signal," he said.

"The reason why we have a room like this is that we can be very controlled about the signal. We can have 3G 2100MHz or 4G at 1800MHz, or future testing like the 4G at 2500MHz or 2100MHz."

One of the boxes used to test devices.
One of the boxes used to test devices. (Credit: Telstra)

He said that they test the devices in the room to the limit of their specification to ensure that they meet the 3GPP and Telstra standards.

"We can make devices handover from 3G to 4G, from 4G back to 3G, and make sure all those transitions occur properly. We do that for smartphones, for tablets, for machine to machine devices."

Every time there is an iOS or Android update, those changes also need to be brought through the lab, he said.

The company has to test a variety of different scenarios, such as being in the CBD with lots of competing cell towers, to being in a regional area on the edge of a mobile network, to being out of signal range in the bottom of a carpark.

The "Blue Tick" room is where Telstra tests devices that provide the best coverage on the company's mobile network. It is an anechoic chamber that has an antenna and a single platform to test a mobile device on its own, and then in the hand of a user.

Anechoic Chamber
The anechoic chamber. (credit: Telstra)

"What we try to do is get the purest signal to the device, like you were in rural Australia, far away from the nearest tower," Goonan said.

"This allows us to effectively test device performance, down to the lowest possible signal."

Warwick Taylor, radio technologist with Telstra, is referred to internally as the "Hand of Telstra" as he is responsible for holding the device during the testing process. Goonan said it wasn't possible to replicate the effect a person has on their mobile antenna using anything other than an actual human hand.

The testing platform
The platform where mobile devices are tested. (Credit: Telstra)

"In this world, we haven't yet to be able to find a fake hand. We haven't been able to simulate using a human hand better than using a human hand. I'm not sure what we're going to do when Warwick decides to retire."

The Blue Tick is awarded to devices that meet Telstra's testing, and it is not something that is awarded to every device, Goonan said.

"You can't buy Blue Tick, you can't apply for one. It's either Blue Tick or not Blue Tick," he said. "Many manufacturers have revised their designs, and now we get a number of devices coming into market that get Blue Ticks."

Goonan said that in addition to testing new devices, the company also tries to replicate issues that customers have reported in to Telstra. Goonan said that he receives an issue a day directly from CEO David Thodey.

Goonan said that 99 percent of complaints brought back from customers tend to be resolved by that customer updating the software on their mobile phone or tablet.

It typically takes Telstra 10 weeks to test a new 3G device, 15 weeks for a 4G device, and 10 weeks for a mobile broadband device. During the field testing period 340 calls are made, 30 calls are made while using data, and in excess of 300 minutes of use over 75km.

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