PITTSBURGH, PA — Wireless customers all want one thing: network service quality that makes their calls go through. In the fiercely competitive Pittsburgh market, with five wireless companies constantly striving to win new customers, the hottest prices may be important, but savvy consumers increasingly demand quality for their calls.
That's why Bell Atlantic Mobile has rolled out its secret weapon in the battle for wireless network superiority in western Pennsylvania -- a souped-up blue station wagon, loaded with a quarter-million dollars worth of sophisticated equipment, traveling the region to objectively measure the service quality of competing digital wireless providers. Simply put, it's quality assurance on wheels.
Bell Atlantic Mobile drive testing means the station wagon is on the road traversing the region, logging nearly a thousand miles each month. The test vehicle winds through the most densely traveled roadways in Allegheny County and the eight surrounding counties, collecting data on call delivery and call quality for all wireless providers in the area.
These drive tests, conducted during the busy calling times between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., are designed to help Bell Atlantic Mobile stay ahead of the competition.
With that goal in mind, the company will invest nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in its network company-wide this year, a good portion in Pittsburgh addressing the topographical challenges the local terrain presents.
"Network reliability is at the core of wireless service and the most important thing to customers," said Roger Tang, regional vice president for Bell Atlantic Mobile in Pittsburgh. "Nearly every new customer in Pittsburgh now selects one of our popular DigitalChoice? or SingleRatesm calling plans. But attractive pricing and high-tech phones are only as good as the network that delivers the service, and we must keep up with growing customer demand. We're seeing an amazing increase in digital traffic on our Pittsburgh network every week."
With five different companies, operating on four different technological platforms, measuring the reliability of each network -- fairly and consistently -- is no small task. In fact, the computerized monitoring equipment and software that allow network engineers to simultaneously compare all networks has only recently become available.
As a Bell Atlantic Mobile engineer steers the way along the region's busiest highways, an array of portable wireless phones chirp with pre- recorded voices and computer equipment drones on in the cargo area of a stealth-like Ford Taurus. Each month, thousands of wireless calls are continuously dialed from the car, recorded and stored for analysis. The tests determine if a call goes through on the first attempt, if a call is dropped, and the sound quality of connections.
Protruding from the car's roof, like quills on a porcupine, are nine antennas strategically located to give each wireless phone inside the car an equal chance of picking up the signal from the service provider it monitors.
Tang said monitoring the performance of the company's network using the new equipment challenges Bell Atlantic Mobile to exceed its own benchmarks and strive to remain the best wireless service provider in the area.
"At Bell Atlantic Mobile, our number one goal is customer satisfaction," Tang said. "That means providing customers with a network that allows them to connect and complete their calls when and where they want.
"With that in mind, our strategy is two-fold. We will continue to invest in and enhance the performance of our network and, secondly, continue to focus on providing outstanding local customer service with the goal of once again winning the J.D. Power and Associates Award for overall customer satisfaction," Tang concluded. "The customer, not the equipment, is the ultimate judge."
In the Pittsburgh Region, Bell Atlantic Mobile was named the leader in overall customer satisfaction among wireless users, according to the prestigious J.D. Power and Associates 1998 U.S. Wireless Customer Satisfaction Studysm.
Bell Atlantic Mobile owns and operates the largest wireless network in the East, covering 120,000 square miles, and the largest chain of retail outlets devoted exclusively to wireless voice, data and paging. Based in Bedminster, NJ, Bell Atlantic Mobile has 6.4 million customers and 8,000 employees form Maine to Georgia and, through a separate subsidiary, in the Southwest. Bell Atlantic Mobile's parent is one of the world's largest wireless communications companies, with domestic operations in 25 states and international investments in Mexico, Europe and the Pacific Rim.
The company's Pittsburgh Regional Headquarters in Thorn Hill Industrial Park in Warrendale, Pennsylvania, includes a local Customer Service Department to provide personalized service to area residents and local businesses. A network of more than a dozen Communications Stores throughout the Region provide convenience and access to certified technicians to install, test and repair equipment.