Inside Verizon’s unique approach to Wi-Fi testing

Verizon’s array of test equipment to assess in-home wireless performance for subscribers to its Fios internet service—and, soon, its 5G wireless broadband—features a bed secured to a wall, next to a nightstand that’s also perpendicular to reality.

In context, those furnishings make sense: The virtual house they occupy also rests on its side. The New York firm built this test environment on one level in an Ashburn, Virginia, structure once occupied by the pioneering internet firm UUNET. It invited reporters to take a tour July 11.

90 degrees from reality

Kirk Cooper, director of Verizon’s content management center, explained that the New York firm opted out of the usual testing regime—buying an empty house for test purposes—because that would have left its testing subject to too many independent external variables.

Plus, sticking a virtual house inside this data-center-sized structure greatly streamlines troubleshooting: "We're in close proximity to our test gear."

But to keep this 4,500-square-foot approximation of a new abode on one floor, the walls must play the part of floors and ceilings and vice versa. That meant, for instance, the rough equivalent of a living room had parquet flooring on a wall that evoked the wood paneling of a 1970s den.

Every several feet, a router or a networked device underwent testing. The latter were often positioned on turntables that scratched their way around every few minutes.

Starting a few months ago, this research has included routers for Verizon’s forthcoming 5G residential service—although in a follow-up email, Cooper noted that the in-home Wi-Fi for that, due to launch starting in Sacramento later this year, didn’t impose “specifically unique” challenges relative to such existing services as Verizon’s gigabit fiber.

Reception results may vary

Cooper said Verizon’s tests have often found subpar performance from third-party gadgets, even flagship smartphones.

"It's fair to say that our impression is that Wi-Fi performance is an afterthought," he said. His generic advice for people experiencing iffy wireless reception: Try holding the phone perpendicular to the router, in either portrait or landscape mode but not with any end tilted toward the hotspot.

After passing through a doorway—about twice as wide as usual, to recreate the thickness of a ceiling in new construction—the tour group found the bed and nightstand attached to a wall, with slippers fastened near them and a stuffed unicorn pig perched next to a pillow.

That whimsical note was as close as the Sideways House got to recreating the untidiness of a human-occupied abode. There was no kitchen with a microwave going on and off, potentially interfering with 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, nor was there a living room with older video gadgets.

Cooper acknowledged those limits, adding that test technicians had asked for not just an approximation of a kitchen setup but also some commercial cooking hardware. Also absent: plaster walls with potentially Wi-Fi-hostile mesh on top of wooden slats.

Wi-Fi variables

More device-specific testing awaited in an anechoic chamber upstairs that featured some two dozen devices—laptops, tablets, phones, set-top-box tuners, and connected cameras, all parked on plastic shelving to avoid metallic interference—linked to a test router’s Wi-Fi.

The oldest software observed was Windows Server 2008, running on a Dell laptop of apparently similar vintage, while most other laptops ran macOS.

Both test environments, however, lacked routers not sold or shipped by Verizon. The company’s own network gateways offer support for both TV reception and internet distribution, but they can also come at a higher cost—especially if users opt to rent one of Verizon’s routers.

Cooper didn’t specifically advise against buying third-party network gear but didn’t endorse that option either: "It does take some knowledge and know-how,” he said. 

Keeping control of the router eases some diagnostic tasks for Verizon but also leaves open the possibility of offering other apps through that device; see, for instance, how Comcast now provides smart-home services through its proprietary xFi gateways.

A networkwide view

The last big stop on the tour was the Network Management Center, rebuilt at the start of the year. In front of an expanse of workstations and whiteboards (all off-limits for up-close photos), a series of monitors relayed critical data about the Fios network.

Displays showing titles like "session border control" (as in, VoIP traffic) and "Fios Automated Blackhole Information" (enforcement against users, often gamers, trying to stage denial-of-service attacks against others) were mercifully blank near lunch, as was a data-outage map.

But Fios subscribers can’t see that data without driving to Ashburn and getting badged into the facility.

"We get into some legal discussions on security," said Matt Forlenza, director of this center. He suggested that an attacker might benefit from knowing that a particular target’s home burglar alarm would be offline but added: “Transparency, like I mentioned earlier, is where we want to go."

Meanwhile, Verizon is working to put predictive analytics to work on such issues as fiber components wearing out and “backhoe fade,” meaning a well-meaning contractor accidentally severs a line.

"Weekends are bad with accidents,” Forlenza said. "We know where people are digging; … let's put a risk score on our fiber."

The challenge they face, same as at any network operations center, is to watch out for the malfunction that hasn’t happened before—but won’t occur just once.