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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 5, 2012 at 4:46 PM

Video: T-Mobile USA turns 10, shows off testing labs

Kathy Barnes had a problem. One day her new Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone stopped working and she couldn’t figure out what happened.

This happens to people all the time, but not Barnes.

She leads one of the nation’s major labs for testing wireless phones, supervising more than 100 engineers at three labs in Bellevue operated by T-Mobile USA. Barnes is the carrier’s senior director of network and device quality assurance.

Before it begins selling a phone or tablet, T-Mobile puts it through a battery of endurance and performance tests in its labs. Results are shared with hardware makers, which must fix any problems T-Mobile discovers. A few times Barnes has delayed the release of new phones because of glitches found by her team.

“I’m not always the most popular person in the room when I have to do that,” she said.

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The equipment includes a robotic system called “Tappy” with multiple fingers that tap out calls, send messages and even play “Angry Birds” — simulating intense usage.

Phones are also dropped repeatedly — including 125 deliberate, 1 meter drops — and doused with the equivalent of a 10-minute walk through a Seattle downpour.

Other gear (shown at left by Barnes) simulates conversation amid background noises, to check call quality, and tests new online, cloud services that come pre-loaded on T-Mobile phones.

T-Mobile gave media tours of the lab on Wednesday to highlight the company’s innovation, on the 10th anniversary of the carrier’s brand.

The company actually is much older. Its beginnings can be traced back to 1994, when Western Wireless was formed under the leadership of McCaw Cellular veteran John Stanton. Western Wireless launched VoiceStream Wireless, which Germany’s Deutsche Telekom agreed to buy on July 23, 2000. The deal finally closed in 2001, and a year later the U.S. carrier changed its name to T-Mobile USA.

It’s now one of the largest companies in the Puget Sound region, with about 4,000 local employees and more than $20 billion in annual sales. That’s more than Nordstrom and Starbucks, and T-Mobile’s earnings before interest and depreciation are larger than Costco and Amazon.com, according to Brad Duea, T-Mobile’s senior vice president of product management.

Seattle has returned the favor. T-Mobile has more than 660,000 customers in the local area.

The company’s anniversary celebration includes a series of employee meetings starting next week, and coincides with the start of its new unlimited, 4G wireless plans.

“We look forward to the next 10 years and bringing new innovations, like our 4G data plans, to the market,” Duea said.

Over the years, the company built up its extensive labs for validating wireless hardware. Another legacy of McCaw is that AT&T has a similar validation operation down the road in Redmond.

This cluster of expertise helps ensure that carriers won’t offer glitchy phones. It also helped Barnes solve her Galaxy S III mystery.

Barnes brought her phone into the office and consulted with a few of the experts, namely Dan Bacon, a noted reliability engineer, and Harinder Nehra, principal accoustic engineer in the labs.

With a little work they discovered tiny bits of metal had clogged the metal screen on its speaker. Barnes’ husband likes to work with varnish, and the metal was shavings of steel wool used in his hobby.

It turns out there’s a magnetic attenuator on the speaker that attracted the metal particles. Barnes said Bacon was intrigued and began thinking about ways to check the tiny openings in the mesh over phone speakers.

It all worked out in time for Barnes to use her personal handset on the anniversary lab tours, during which it provided unvarnished demonstrations of the drop testing equipment.

Here’s a video of the lab tour today:

Kathy Barnes, a senior director at T-Mobile who leads the Engineering Quality Assurance and Device Technology teams, gives a tour of the testing labs at the Bellevue headquarters of T-Mobile USA.

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Here’s one of T-Mobile’s patented “Tappy” robot testing systems in action, testing a Samsung Galaxy Note that’s visible on the test bed a right and the monitor at left:

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