You think you make a lot of cellphone calls? Rivertown resident Steve Powell makes calls every 150 seconds without fail—and all while driving. Powell is the real-life equivalent of the bespectacled “Can you hear me now?” guy from the Verizon Wireless commercials, and each day he’s responsible for testing the cellular network in Westchester, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Long Island. “My job is a lot more technical than that, but those commercials really represent what I do,” he says. “I’m really that guy.”
To test the wireless services, our test man (or “associate engineer/baseline drive test man,” if you want to be official) hits the road in an SUV that looks unassuming from the outside, but inside rivals the Starship Enterprise with the amount of gizmos it holds: six cellphones (one Verizon phone for outgoing calls, one Verizon phone for incoming calls, and phones from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Nextel), data cards for all the wireless networks, and two laptops to help him interpret the results of his tests. As he drives—and he drives some 200 miles a day—the phones automatically make outgoing calls, receive incoming ones, upload and download files, and try logging on and off websites. The calls use pre-recorded “Harvard sentences”—sentences with common consonant and vowel sounds, such as, “These days a chicken leg is a rare dish”—to test the voice quality. “The sentences are not really designed to make sense,” Powell says.
So, where are the dead spots in Westchester? “This is not just bragging about Verizon, but the connections are pretty good all over Westchester,” he says. The rougher patches are up north, where the terrain makes it harder to put up cell towers. “Bear Mountain is a challenge, but it’d be a challenge for any carrier,” he says. According to Powell, the tall buildings going up in White Plains pose no threat to our phone addictions—it’s Mother Nature who gets in the way of our calls.
Powell enjoys being responsible for the area’s reception. “It really is a dream job,” he says. “You don’t think about a job like this until it’s offered to you. I get to see all of New York, and I get to play a huge part in this company’s success.” The biggest difference between Powell and his on-screen commercial counterpart? “I wear shades,” he says.