Inside T-Mobile’s new device testing lab, where the ‘Un-carrier’ is gearing up for national 5G rollout

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T-Mobile’s Launch Pad testing facility in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

T-Mobile is pulling back the curtain on a new device testing lab in its hometown of Bellevue, Wash., as it prepares to roll out next-generation 5G wireless service across the country next year.

The new 20,000-square-foot device lab was created inside a larger innovation and testing facility that T-Mobile calls the Launch Pad. About 200 T-Mobile employees in the new lab test devices, including smartphones and Internet of Things gadgets, for functionality and durability. They check to see if devices work well running everyday actions that a typical user might perform, and they also put new phones through the wringer: forcefully dropping them, soaking them in simulated rain storms and baking them at extreme heat.

It’s a metaphor for what the company itself has been through in its attempt to merge with Sprint to create a $146 billion wireless company. Originally announced more than a year ago, the deal faces ongoing challenges from states and lawmakers even as FCC approval appears likely following a nod from the U.S. Department of Justice. T-Mobile says the merger would position the combined company to better challenge larger carriers AT&T and Verizon in the era of super-fast 5G wireless connectivity.

In the meantime, T-Mobile is laying the technical groundwork for that era on its own. The new devices lab shares the facility with the company’s network testing lab for the entire U.S., where it experiments with everything to do with connectivity. Along the winding hallways are soundproofed rooms to monitor audio quality, labs optimized to test wireless spectrum that enables fast download speeds but can’t travel very far, and other areas working on the kind of low-band spectrum needed to bring 5G to far-flung rural regions.

“We have lots of smart engineers coming up with ideas,” Grant Castle, vice president of engineering and quality assurance, told GeekWire on a tour of the facility this week. “When they want their ideas to come to life, this is where they come. So they come up here and we do testing, we do proof of concept and we do some trials.”

This room tests the level and quality of signal that devices can send and receive through low-band wireless spectrum. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

T-Mobile first established the facility nearly 20 years ago and it has grown steadily since then. It started at around 10,000 square feet and has ballooned to nearly 100,000 square feet as the Launch Pad today. T-Mobile has another office building across the street from the facility where engineers can work when they’re not performing tests.

T-Mobile sees the facility growing even further, as the company has “acquired rights” on some of the nearby buildings to potentially grow the Launch Pad footprint, Castle said.

Launch Pad is about 5 miles north of T-Mobile’s headquarters in what used to be an appliance store in a transition zone between Bellevue and nearby Redmond, the home of Microsoft. It’s just down the road from a new neighborhood coming out of the ground, the Spring District, which will feature a new headquarters for REI and a major office for Facebook.

A testing room for millimeter-wave spectrum, which is seen as a key enabler of 5G because of its ability to deliver faster, higher-quality video, and multimedia content. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy

For much of its existence, the Launch Pad was shrouded in secrecy, hidden away in a forest of low-rise office buildings and warehouses. It didn’t have a big sign on the front like it does today, and there wasn’t the smallest hint of the company’s signature shade of magenta. As T-Mobile evolved under CEO John Legere to paint itself as the rebel alternative to AT&T and Verizon, the company started to become more open and vocal about its work.

“People would always assume we were kind of the little carrier, and we didn’t really do much, that we just followed everybody,” Castle said. “We wanted to show off our technology leadership and our network leadership because we were getting no credit for it. We wanted to tell our story.”

Grant Castle, T-Mobile vice president of engineering and quality assurance. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Launch Pad is uniquely T-Mobile. Everything is magenta, from traffic control structures in the parking lot to sound proofing and signal testing equipment in the labs. Displayed along the walls are more than 500 plaques commemorating patents the company has received.

A significant chunk of the facility is dedicated to tests related to low-band spectrum, which covers longer distances than other spectrum types and shores up signal strength within buildings and in rural areas. T-Mobile spent close to $8 billion on low-band spectrum in a 2017 FCC auction, making it a centerpiece of its 5G push.

Here T-Mobile is running scripts of everyday smartphone actions on dozens of phones at a time to measure quality. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The lab also features testing areas to make sure phones continue to function smoothly after software updates, from either the carrier or the smartphone manufacturer.

“It takes two hands to clap,” Castle said. “So we have to transmit and the phone has to receive, and we want to make sure the phone can receive our signal as far away as possible.”

The wall of patents. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Often in tours of device labs, the companies tightly restrict what visitors can view and document, but that wasn’t the case with the T-Mobile facility. The one exception was a room home to the smartphone robot Tappy, a testing device that was at the center of an international legal battle between T-Mobile and Chinese wireless giant Huawei.

There are about 20 of the original Tappy devices in the facility. T-Mobile built an updated version of the testing robot, which uses finger-like appendages to test all the buttons and functions on new phones. T-Mobile records the actions and can spot errors and communicate them to device manufacturers.

This image shows how hot a phone is getting inside an oven. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

In addition to the testing space, T-Mobile built a “Tech Experience” dedicated to the futuristic capabilities of 5G. It’s been open for about 18 months for partners, sponsors and others.

The idea is to show everything that 5G and T-Mobile’s technology investments can do. The demos provide a peek at an Internet future that’s just around the corner, including a smart mirror that customers can use to view more information and interactive features about retail products they’re holding in their hands.

A familiar symbol of T-Mobile’s past sits in the middle of the Tech Experience. T-Mobile repurposed the magenta Ducati motorcycle that was a centerpiece of ad campaigns featuring its former commercial spokesperson Carly several years ago and gave it a new life.

The Ducati at the center of T-Mobile ad campaigns in the early 2010s lives on as an augmented reality exhibit in the T-Mobile Tech Experience. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Today, it is being used as a demo for the potential of augmented reality and 5G. In this hypothetical situation, something is wrong with the motorcycle, and the owner has to figure out how to fix it. Scanning the bike with a tablet camera and an app brings in a virtual repair tech to perform a diagnostic test and walk the owner through what’s wrong and how to fix it.

“Imagine this being linked to a pair of smart glasses that then connects to your 5G-enabled device. All this content streams directly to your device in real time,” said Jason Mazur, a senior engineer at T-Mobile and design lead for the Tech Experience. “This could be a paper jam stuck in your printer. This could be how to change the water filter at home, how to set up your Internet connection, walking you through all of these steps, streaming to your device very quickly without having to download all this content in advance of the expected use.”

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