The Right Hand Of Telstra: Meet The In-House Deathgrip Tester

Deathgrip. It sounds like a Harry Potter villain or a Darth Vader finishing-move. No matter what it sounds like, it's still the arch-nemesis of cellular networks. When Apple addressed the iPhone 4's deathgrip issue -- dubbed Antennagate -- it dragged other manufacturers down with it by saying that the same thing happens to all phones when you hold them wrong. Those manufacturers quickly rebuked the claims of Steve Jobs, but inside a sealed, top-secret Australian facility, behind a thick, steel door, Telstra was testing all of its handsets for deathgrip symptoms. The results: deathgrip affects every handset ever made.

This is part two of Gizmodo's Top-Secret Telstra Test Lab Tour. Read the first instalment here.

Meet Warwick. Upon first inspection, he's just an average Aussie bloke. Average height, build, weight and stature, but when you start talking to him, you realise he's one of the most important people currently under Telstra's employ. Well, at least one of his body parts is.

Don't worry, it's not anything suspect. Warwick is commonly known as the "Right Hand of Telstra". His job is to stand inside a sealed box day after day and hold the latest and greatest in phones. Just hold them. Nothing too complex.

I know what you're thinking: "That's not so tough! Why is he so special?" Warwick is special because it's his job and his job alone to replicate the infamous deathgrip. It's his job to push phones to their cellular breaking point. He has the magic touch.

His office is unlike anyone's in the top-secret Telstra Mobile Innovations Lab. Instead of sitting at a desk all day, he stands in what's known as an anechoic chamber. Anechoic is a fancy word for "free from echo". Wander inside the chamber and you'd be forgiven for thinking it resembles like a recording studio built by sadomasochists. Blue felt spikes reach out from every wall and corner to try and grab you, the floor is padded with rubber and at the far end, away from the door, is a pedastal topped with an HTC One XL.

Warwick breathes life into the handset, and proceeds to hold it carefully in his hand while an antenna ripped straight from a cell tower fires signal at the device from inside the room. He cups the phone, moulds his hand around it, cradles it and squashes it to see how it reacts to having the antenna covered. There are 10 different grips that Warwick uses to test handsets, and the results are measured by his off-sider who stands outside the anechoic chamber, waiting patiently for the all-important data.

A bad handset will lose signal when both sides of the device are covered, much like the antenna did on the iPhone 4. A good handset will be able to push through the fleshy obstacle and grab the all-important signal as if the hand wasn't even there.

The anechoic chamber is rigged to replicate rural scenarios; real edge-of-coverage zones like regional New South Wales and central Australia. The best-performing handsets nab what Telstra refer to as the Blue Tick for regional coverage. That means that the handset is the best for people like farmers, bush-dwellers, truckers and anyone who thinks that a drive along the Nullabor Plain is a great time.

Blue Tick handsets have to satisfy other criteria beyond having the best coverage, which includes sporting a jack for an external antenna and actually being able to perform in regional Australia when tested out there by field technicians. But the first line of testing and the ultimate authority on what phone is best for regional coverage is Warwick. He's the right hand of Telstra, and it's an appendage manufacturers fear.

Warwick won't be drawn on what happened when the iPhone 4 came through the S&M-style cellular torture chamber, but he does know that manufacturers have made changes to handsets based on what he and the rest of the team at the Mobile Innovations Lab decide. Nobody can apply for a Blue Tick. They either get it, or they don't, and missing out is serious business to some manufacturers.

So the next time you have coverage in an area you thought impossible, thank the stars for guys like Warwick: the deathgrip detective.

The story continues in the third and final instalment...



    On Telstras website the iphone 4s has a blue tick, yet it does not have any way of plugging in an external antenna as far as i know.

    You don't have to be able to plug in an external antenna to get a blue tick. You can use a passive coupling cradle like a smoothtalker to provide a signal boost when the 4s dual antenna struggle to pick up or respond to the weakest of signals, but I am dubious as to how well it works.

    I use a 9db gain antenna and a cradle for my 4s and it does not add any bars but makes the difference between no calls and clear calls when down to one bar.

    Awesome article, good to learn a few things about testing.

    Can you check one thing though? What's actually taking so long for them to release the Note 2??? D:

    Standing in that room would make me very nervous.

      He is definitely getting cancer of some sort pretty soon. Being that close to transmission equipment in a sealed environment on a daily basis is really, really, really dangerous.

        I sincerely hope you're wearing tinfoil undies to go with your tinfoil hat, otherwise your kids might come out retarded... like you

          I have to agree with tuxedoglenny here. It could do some serious damage, assuming it is broadcasting at the same strength as the large towers in the wild - my guess would be that it would be of lesser strength, if you stand 3m from any tower, i doubt your hand will do much difference. Using full strength would create a horribly false result.

            So you dont use a mobile phone or a WiFi modem? Do you really think that the ouput from the transmitter is going to be standard transmition strength? They are testing real world situations. What would be the logic of having uber high signal strength when they are testing for antenna problems?

            Both you guys need to look up the difference between ionising and non-ionising radiation.

              No I don't. Either can be dangerous. X-ray and Gama radiation are non ionizing radiation just the same as the radiation emitted and received by mobile phones. They consist of photons. Photons have no mass so have no direct effect of matter. However, they do have an effect. a photon of light from the sun strikes an silicone molecule in a solar panel, that electron is excited and causes an electrical potential.

              That same photon with a much higher energy will quite easily pass through matter, including the top layers of your skin. It excites an electron in an atom that forms part of a strand of DNA and causes that atom to change its chemical attributes changing the DNA strand. This causes a mutation in the DNA. This one cell with its mutation can start growing uncontrollably. This is called cancer.

              So don't tell me there is a difference in health effects between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. non-ionizing radiation may take longer to cause damage, but it still causes damage.

              The point that I was making that you have missed is that there is no more radiation in that box than the average person is exposed to outside everyday.

                I was actually responding to harrisontoms and tuxedoglenny.

                X-ray and Gama radiation are non ionizing radiation
                This is directly contradicted by the links I posted. All radiation above about mid-ultraviolet is ionising, everything below is non-ionising. That's why (high) UV light, X-rays, gamma rays etc can give you cancer, and visible light, infra-red light, and yes, microwaves do not give you cancer. The individual photons simply do not have enough energy to excite an atom sufficiently to ionise it, and no mutations can occur.

                That's not to say lower-wavelength can't be dangerous - it can of course cause burns, in sufficient strength, but that requires far more power to do any damage. Photo-electric effects are an in-between case, involving excitation strong enough to increase electron mobility, but not to ionise anything.

                You can be exposed to low-level non-ionising radiation (like standing under a lightbulb) all day, every day, with no increased health risk whatsoever. You're right in that the radiation in that test chamber would certainly not be high enough to be dangerous (i.e. cause overheating or burns), but there is no evidence that exposure to reasonable strengths of non-ionising radiation (like visible light or wi-fi) is dangerous in any way, despite many dozens of studies.

    There are a few of those labs around the place. Swinburne uni had one of those labs 6 years ago. Not so top secret.

    being an ex-tower contractor for one or the major telco's, let me assure you that close range environments to powered mobile antenna is very dangerous, even short term. over the long term hopefully this guy knows enough about RF to turn down the power a notch or two. at least its not a long range microwave dish used on a base station.

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