We’ve taken a look at just what it’s like to work at Vodafone HQ in Newbury. However, I need to start asking some questions on behalf of you lot. Firstly I’d like to find out just why mobile handsets take so long to become available through the network (or any network) and what exactly slows down software updates.
I’m told that the vendor usually sends an early pre-production model of a phone which is pretty much ready to launch. To the average consumer, everything might seem to work fine, but Vodafone need to ensure that the handset in question can properly work on the Vodafone network. Will it perform as expected? Can it run all the additional content which Vodafone now make available on certain plans (like Netflix, NOW TV, Spotify etc)? Sure, it could be a standard Android handset and you know it’ll probably be OK, but Vodafone need to be absolutely sure else they’re going to have very annoyed consumers if an app doesn’t have the right amount of memory or CPU to support the bundled Sky Sports Mobile TV etc.
It’s not just software of course, and although a handset will have been tested by the manufacturer already, Vodafone run through hundreds of hours of testing on the hardware. Handsets go to a site in Germany where roaming, handover and multiple other networks can be checked. Local testing on the Vodafone UK network is done closer to home, just up the road in fact. These tests ensure that the customer is definitely going to get the VoLTE service or 4G signal that the network wants them to receive. Antenna testing, stringent health and safety checks, Bluetooth, battery and WiFi certification tests are done too. A maintenance schedule is also put in place to support that handset on Vodafone for a certain length of time.
Have any failed this testing?
Perhaps a minor annoyance is the fact that these rejected handsets can be easily imported and used via SIM-only deals on the very network that rejected that hardware.
Basically, the testing team ensure that handsets sold by Vodafone are going to give you the best Vodafone experience you can get.
What of Android software updates for existing handsets? We all want the latest and greatest Android OS, but at times it feels like the major networks drag their feet on this matter and “testing” of the software prevents customers from receiving the updated experience.
Again, this is down to testing. In years gone by this could take quite a while, as the manufacturer would have to get the latest Android build and see whether the hardware and drivers would work as expected under the new build. This has though, in recent times, sped up as Android developer builds have arrived. Also, Vodafone have to test whether that OS update will affect the handset and the overall experience.
Vodafone took me to see some of this testing, which happens a few miles down the road. The journey came courtesy of the utterly cool Vodafone VW Camper. I’m worried about quite how much I’ll talk about this, because it’s been beautifully kept. Every inch of this vehicle is pristine. From the leather sports seats to the bodywork and the polished chrome headlights. I was seriously envious of the driver, who seems to be the only Vodafone employee insured to drive it and relishes his task.
I arrive at the secure testing centre and sign my life away with a myriad of forms and disclaimers (no photos unfortunately guys). The main office leads into a number of signal-blocking Faraday cages and the huge automated sliding doors leading in are ominous to say the least. It feels as if you’re entering a decompression chamber, with huge push-buttons outside activating the doors and releasing a soft “whooshing” sound as the door forces itself away from the cell-like chamber. Inside, in something resembling the base station of a James Bond baddie, dozens of smartphones are laid out, all connected to a central charge point. The door slides shut behind me and I suddenly feel like I’m in a broken-down lift or some sort of submarine. The Vodafone rep tells me that there’s no chance of getting stuck though, as people in here have to activate the lighting every 15 minutes and, if it’s not done, alarms will sound and the doors will open.
It still feels like I’m stuck in a microwave.
To some extent that analogy is actually correct, because the metal around your microwave is doing a similar thing – blocking those microwaves from escaping. Here this particular Faraday cage blocks all signals from the outside world coming in from spoiling tests (EE, Voda, Three, O2 and, in fact, every other signal) so that staff can collect accurate results. In here there’s tiny transmitters, which are in effect small versions of those masts you see in car-parks, fields and on top of buildings around the world. Here everything is cranked WAY down so that the staff don’t melt, and phones on the testbed only receive signals from the masts in here. This is where hand-over testing and signal testing can be performed properly, and I was shown a very cool demonstration where a VoLTE (Voice over LTE or Voice over 4G) call was placed using the test network. The clarity, over a SIP network (sorry, I’m going a bit geeky here as I worked with SIP / VoIP technology about 8 years ago), was brilliant and, by simply turning down the power of the 4G mini-mast in the Faraday cage, we could see how the call got handed over onto the 3G mini-mast. Clever stuff, and another rubber stamp on the testing sheet for this particular handset.
The tiny mobile phone masts aren’t just plugged into the Vodafone network though. This is a completely separate miniature version of the entire Vodafone network. As we head into what looks like a server facility, large cages house all those clever bits you’d normally find at the bottom of the masts in the street. Outside they’re usually in green or grey boxes with full weatherproofing, but here the units feed the various signals up and out into the Faraday cages for testing. They can play and test anything here, and it mirrors the kit they have out in the field – so there’s even a cage housing some really old 2G kit with large cards at the bottom and equally sizeable cards slotted above them. I ask just how many simultanous calls this particular “cell” could handle. You can see here that each card handles a certain amount of calls – this one does 48. The cards at the top pump out the frequencies – 900MHz only here, but there’s 1800MHz and 2100MHz in other cabinets for 2G and 3G. They also have newer kit, with those large cards combined together to make the entire setup smaller. 800MHz and 2600MHz is sent up and out through into the Faraday cages for 4G and 4G+ / LTE Advanced.
Other cabinets house the networking gear needed to hook all this together. The servers responsible for adding phones onto the test network, sending texts, providing data and handling / routing calls.
At the back are some microwave dishes pointing directly towards each other for testing connectivity. All of the masts, of course, have to connect to the Vodafone network. This is usually done, where possible, through fast fibre connections, but where that’s not possible you’ll see these microwave dishes hanging off the side.
Now, though, it’s time to head back to the HQ to see some of the upcoming products that are about to arrive on the network. We’re not talking phones any more. Join me in the next article where we take a look at some new gadgets.