Gizmodo Tours Telstra's Top-Secret Test Labs

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?"

Going Native

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...



    No Macbooks in that photo, *starts a fanboy war*

      ...what has that got to do with anything? lots of businesses dont have macbooks as an offering to employees

        Don't feed..

          Everybody, I was joking, relax.

            +1 upvote because I understood your sarcasm and feel sorry for your downvotes due to others not recognizing it.

              Thanks haha, people get angry over nothing.

      Congratulations on turning a story about Telstra into a PC vs Mac debate... lol

      Last edited 03/12/12 12:50 pm

        No, that's seriously what Telstra employees do all day. Just sit there all day staring at computer monitors looking busy. I know, worked there for 8 months.

      When I worked at Three Mobile the product test guys had both as they needed to test mobile broadband and bundled software on both platforms, I'm sure Telstra would do the same.

      Mac what?

    Because Macs are still for yuppies, you want to get real work done and actually have the computer fade into the back ground as a tool that it is you use the industry standard.

    That why there are no 'tough book' macs, there is zero options for rugged water proof dust proof computers from, instead all macs are looking pretty and being useless in fashion sensitive applications, and that is why they will always be number 2 in business computers.

    I like war.

      those look like lenovo thinkpads in the pic - not ibm, and certainly not tough anymore.
      but i get your point :)

        Should have pissed off a few fanbois from each side of the camp by now ;)

    Nice article - thanks Giz

    Last edited 03/12/12 12:48 pm

    MAC vs PC has nothing to do with this article - screw off and share an opinion on the subject matter! I love the fact that Telstra actually has test labs - labs were engineers can see the problems that we're having in terms of Network Communication and are working to resolve them. Kudos Telstra - now just get an Accounting Test Lab to fix the pricing issues! Haha

    Interesting story - thanks.

    And those guys in the final photo look exactly how I expected Telstra mobile phone engineers to look like :-P

    What are the usual perks of working in such high-security and tech positions apart from the prestige and position? Do they get first dibs on phones?

    But why?
    I don't understand why they test phones for international signal bands? When I bought my phone I know it is a GSM device, what bands it support and that it will not work on some US networks.
    Does it mean Telstra doesn't believe the manufacturer when it says which bands the device would operate in? And do Telstra then not sell phones that will not work overseas?
    What am I missing here?

      regardless of what the box says.. you still need to test. Think about it.. you sell a phone to your customers, they then get overseas and their phones stop working.. now you have a lot of angry customers making a lot of noise.. best to just test it now and make 100% sure.

    you said no photos so

    Camera Make = Canon
    Camera Model = Canon EOS 5D Mark II
    Picture Orientation = normal (1)
    X-Resolution = 240/1 ===> 240
    Y-Resolution = 240/1 ===> 240
    X/Y-Resolution Unit = inch (2)
    Last Modified Date/Time = 2012:10:17 09:50:20

    is that from your cammera or telstras?

    Nope, I do not get it. Why the secrecy?
    They are not developing tech, so trying to keep ahead of the competition is not the reason.
    They are not implementing tech. i.e. a data center, therefore a need for security/secrecy.

    They are testing tech. So what? An infiltrator gets in and ..... tests his mobile reception?

      The majority of Telstra's testing focuses on the integration of new technologies and devices with existing Telstra infrastructure.

      As for secrecy and commercial advantage - I'll answer a question with two more: Do you think Optus & Three would be interested in Telstra's handset release roadmap for 2013? Why do you think that would be?

        Your questions... Yes Optus/Vodafone would be interested. Answer 2 - they sell phones too.
        Relevance? Your kidding me. According to the article, they are testing all sorts of handsets. A spy is going to decipher a roadmap from the dozens sitting around the lab?
        Try again - Your roadmap will be located with management in head office (The decision makers).

    Editors correction note:

    It’s Friday mourning, and already the heat is on. I finish off my third bottle of Scotch and look back at my building for the phone I’m meant to be visiting. My cab driver and I have already circled this block for 10 hours searching for it. It’s a phone with no name, no number, and no desire to ever be found by anyone.


    Last edited 04/12/12 1:29 am

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