U.S. Cellular: System Performance Engineers Keep Watch Over Wireless Network



MILWAUKEE, Wis., March 16, 2005 – Cell phone networks covering dozens of states actually consist of a delicate web of thousands of cell sites, each serving a radius of only a few miles. While built to withstand the fiercest conditions, these towers – and the antennas they support – require constant personal attention. It’s a wireless company’s small army of system performance engineers that provides the personal touch necessary to keep a cellular network working and working well.

With cellular phones operating at 800 and 1900 megahertz – 10 and 20 times higher than FM radio – signals often can be fragile, and service subject to accidental drops. While U.S. Cellular operates sophisticated network operations centers to monitor its network 24 hours a day, it is the company’s system performance engineers that are the ground force in the battle to keep the network running at its full potential.

“Our customers go everywhere, so our engineers have to go everywhere, too,” said Lou Brazzoni, director of sales for U.S. Cellular in Wisconsin. “While we may have people back at the network operation centers, it’s the system performance engineer’s job to spot and fix network problems that are a very real and important part of making local service the best it can be.”

These engineers don’t sit in massive control rooms gazing at computer monitors; they sit in an ordinary-looking SUV, driving days and nights through every street in every community, reworking finicky cellular antennas.

From the driver’s seat, engineers operate an arsenal of state-of-the-art technology, including mapping and diagnostic equipment, computers and even an array of regular cell phones. They may drive as many as 400 miles in one day to gather information on how a network is performing.
“While the engineer drives the streets and highways, the phones in the car automatically place calls,” Brazzoni says. “The equipment runs a series of digital signal tests 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.”

But despite their time behind the wheel, these road warriors also have offices. When they return to their desks, another part of the engineers’ job begins. This is where they evaluate the data they have collected to root out trouble areas and determine the steps needed to fix them.

“The road test information helps show the hiccups in the system, and that comprises the engineer’s to-do list,” Brazzoni says. “This tells them whether environmental effects such as heavy wind or ice might have altered either the pitch or attitude of an antenna. Sometimes, even newly blossomed trees, the growth of vegetation or construction of new buildings can have an effect on coverage.”

According to Brazzoni, 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. On rare occasions, the only solution may require engineering an additional tower.

“The most difficult part is that getting a better signal for one area can negatively affect another,” Brazzoni says. “Striking a balance is sometimes the best option.”

“We’re very proud of the work our engineers do to create the best network in Wisconsin,” Brazzoni says. “It’s a hard, behind-the-scenes job. They have even made house calls to uncover signal problems. But without them, our customers wouldn’t be able to enjoy the mobility they do now with their cell phones.”

Chicago-based U.S. Cellular Corporation (AMEX: USM) is a super-regional wireless company, serving more than 4.9 million customers in 148 markets in 25 states. With 2004 service revenues of $2.64 billion, U.S. Cellular maintains one of the industry’s highest levels of customer satisfaction by emphasizing customer support, quality network coverage and comprehensive range of wireless products and services. The company is an active corporate citizen through charitable contributions, award-winning community relations programs and associate volunteer activities. For more information, visit www.uscellular.com.

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Susie Falk

Office: 414-291-7620

[email protected]

Matthew Tiefenbrun, U.S. Cellular
Office: 773-399-8873
Cell: 773-392-7801