- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Gregory Booze is cruising through a sleepy Maryland town when a computer in the passenger seat blurts out.

The computer says that a cell phone (one of eight in Mr. Booze’s truck) has just dropped a call, presumably because a signal from a network tower grew too weak.

“It’s not unusual for that carrier,” Mr. Booze says.

Mr. Booze is one of the real “Can You Hear Me Now?” guys for Verizon Wireless.

He drives throughout the mid-Atlantic region each weekday searching for weak spots in the cell phone network. Even though he works for Verizon Wireless, he is also looking for weak spots in the wireless networks of competitors, including AT&T; Wireless, Sprint, Cingular and Nextel.

That’s what he found in rural Maryland. Two phones pooped out. He says they weren’t Verizon Wireless phones, but doesn’t name the underperformers.

Mr. Booze, 52, who looks like he could step right back into the suit he wore to his high school prom, puts up to 500 miles a day on his company-issued SUV looking for these black holes in the technological landscape. He covers an area stretching from southern Pennsylvania to Virginia Beach to the Shenandoah Mountains. He does that after driving an hour to work from his home in Calvert County.

Mr. Booze loads two metal boxes in the back of the truck each morning. They contain eight cell phones. Two are Verizon Wireless phones. The company also subscribes to service from six competitors.

Each phone is programmed to place a call every 21/2 minutes. They connect to a computer at the Verizon Wireless office in Annapolis Junction, Md., where Mr. Booze begins his day.

Constantly testing each competitor’s network of cell towers comes at a cost. The phones in his truck make hundreds of calls by the end of each week. It results in combined cell phone charges each month for Verizon Wireless of about $2,000.

When a call is connected, an automated voice repeats a series of inane sentences developed by a group of linguists: “These days a chicken leg is a rare dish,” or “the boss ran the show with a watchful eye,” or “it’s easy to tell the depth of a well.”

Verizon Wireless engineers use this approach to determine the clarity of each call, another measure of the cell phone networks.

But Mr. Booze could go mad if he didn’t turn off the volume on each phone.

To make each day’s lengthy drive easier to stomach, Mr. Booze pops in jazz CDs that sit in a case next to him.

And he listens to traffic reports.

He’s heading west on Interstate 70 when traffic comes nearly to a standstill.

“Typical. It happens once a day. The bad thing is you can’t escape it. You can’t deviate from the route,” he says.

The point is to drive an established route and test the cell phone networks at least once a month. Mr. Booze’s route covers 2,100 miles and was developed based on state Transportation Department data that indicate which roads carry the most traffic.

Mr. Booze says he is a good driver. He’s never gotten a speeding ticket. He’s never run out of gas.

He had to call a tow truck once. He might have to again: A light on the dashboard warns him to “service engine soon.” Verizon Wireless leased the truck for Mr. Booze in January. It has 43,700 miles on it.

While the odometer spins, the laptop in the passenger seat logs data about calls placed from each phone.

Engineers comb through the data, looking for clues to strengthen the company’s network of cell towers. The information indicates the calls dropped by a cell phone and the calls that failed to connect. If they discover a problem with the Verizon Wireless network, a global positioning system in Mr. Booze’s truck pinpoints where it occurred.

Data from Mr. Booze’s test drives and customer complaints helped persuade Verizon Wireless to build a new tower along Route 50 in Virginia, near Chantilly, to bolster its own service. The company will build two more towers in the area.

“We’re building them based on the fact that we dropped [calls] there quite regularly. We definitely use the information he collects to build cell sites and to fix things,” says Rich Dolson, Verizon Wireless’s director of network system performance.

The company has about 60 people across the country drive-testing the Verizon Wireless cell phone network. Other cell phone companies do the same thing. Independent firms also test networks and sell the information to cell phone companies.

“I’m a watchdog,” Mr. Booze says.

Eight antennas — one for each phone — decorate the top of the truck he drives and convince some drivers that Mr. Booze is a cop.

But he just passes them by on his way to the next outpost.

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