It’s Friday morning, and already the heat is on. I finish off my third bottle of water and look back at my phone for the building I’m meant to be visiting. My cab driver and I have already circled this block for 10 minutes searching for it. It’s a building with no name, no number, and no desire to ever be found by anyone.
I suspect my target is the grey building in the middle of the block. No idea why I picked it; it just looked Telstra-like, I guess. Grey, concrete, built in the 1980s during Telstra’s monopolistic hey-day.
I tail a courier entering the building and sneak a peek at the address label. There is no name on the label. I doubt any of the packages that come through this door have one.
I’m here for a media tour, and I finally know I’m in the right place when I spy other journalists signing into the building, looking equally as confused and fatigued while shaking hands with Telstra’s public relations team. I’m now inside the building Telstra doesn’t want found: its mobile network testing facility.
Telstra doesn’t want me telling you where this building is. No photos were allowed, and advertising the location via social media is frowned upon, if not forbidden entirely.
Down The Rabbit Hole…
We’re taken up through the bowels of this old facility. We’re told it’s a hodgepodge of tack-ons; more wings have been added over the years. Three lifts, four secure doors and countless security signs later, we enter a modern conference room. It’s air-conditioned, thank goodness, but that doesn’t mean the heat of the situation is any less intense.
This is one of three top-secret testing facilities Telstra owns, and it specifically deals with mobile phones and network testing. Everything amazing that has grabbed a headline in the last decade has crossed the desks of the engineers working here. 3G, Next G, HSPA+, 4G, new and refarmed spectrum, micro-cell boosters and every smartphone you’ve ever burned, pined and perished for.
This particular facility comprises three small, yet incredibly important, rooms. Outside of the main conference room is a row of racks, which at first glance resembles what you’d see in a typical datacentre. These racks are different, though. These are mini-mobile base stations. Each sports a massive label indicating the frequency being produced. In one tiny space, Telstra is broadcasting every network it supports at once: from 2G, to 3G, right up to 4G. The telco is even messing with the next generation of LTE technology by testing handsets at different bands. This is stuff that won’t be on the market for years, but Telstra examines it anyway.
We stroll casually through the future of Australian telecommunications, as our guide points at different white boxes to explain their significance. Out of the countless base stations, he stops at one in particular and explains that this is generating 4G/LTE signal across the 2100MHz band. Telstra’s 4G networks only broadcast on 1800MHz right now. If there were another band open, that would theoretically mean less congestion on the network — a secret dream of mine.
Telstra knows about the congestion challenge, when it knows lots of people are going to be congregating in the one location it deploys additional mobile base stations (known as micro-cells by boffins) to spread the load. In the spirit of its these clandestine network testing facilities Telstra is sneaky about deploying them. In the Melbourne CBD, for example, micro-cells are disguised as fake garbage bins before being placed strategically throughout the city.
These test signals aren’t pumped outside this building, though. Instead, it’s fed out via coaxial cable to the desks of the 20-strong engineering team on the other side of the conference room. The 7700 live mobile base stations around Australia depend on the work that these engineers are doing to make sure the network runs smoothly.
Network congestion is something that’s getting harder and harder to combat. Record numbers of people are using smartphones and data devices now, and with the massive machine-to-machine push Telstra has going on (it plans to put a data device in every vending machine in Australia) it may well get worse before it gets better.
The simple answer to network congestion is just to deploy more base stations, right? However, it’s not as easy as that because old-fashioned physical space is becoming increasingly hard to come by. Any real-estate agent will tell you that getting hold of space in the middle of a busy city is almost impossible. That’s why this place exists: to find new ways to get signal to more people.
Ten feet away is the next set of rooms. One of them is used for identifying the handsets that get the best coverage, and one is used to test international roaming. Both doors swing open at once and land with a clang as the Telstra communications staff ask: “Seriously, who here is claustrophobic?”
Imagine your office cubicle. Now put it inside a meat locker that comes complete with a six-inch-thick, pressure-sealed door and walls that act like the sides of a Faraday cage. Then imagine getting sealed inside.
We stepped into the box, and suddenly ceased to exist to the outside world. Not even sci-fi-level equipment could tell if there were people in that box once the door was sealed.
Instinctively, I checked my phone, despite the fact that I knew there’d be (ironically) no signal. I watched the bars slide down to nothing before stuffing the device back in my pocket, hoping my general unease would disappear with it.
Why have this test (read: torture) chamber? Despite the isolation, it’s not actually designed for quiet time-outs, or for staff hazing rituals. Instead, it’s the fastest way these Telstra technicians will be able to travel overseas to test handsets.
Signal bands replicating those used all over the world are fed into the room via coaxial cable, and phones are tested for failover between different networks so as to ensure that nothing goes awry when you land. The room can fit up to six technicians at one time, yet the desks are empty.
“Why is there nothing in here?” someone asks. “It’s so you didn’t see what we get up to,” our cagey Telstra tour guide responds. Even in fake-overseas, security is still tight. I’d hate to think what Telstra would do if we found out something we shouldn’t. I’m not sure I’d like to live in this box forever.
The door seal snaps and slowly swings open, and we move onto the next small, confined space. Gulp.
The story continues in Part Two…