Where the synapses meet: AT&T’s switching center

First, let’s take a moment to welcome new advertiser AT&T. You may have heard of this outfit. It only employs 2,477 people in South Carolina, with a payroll of $173 million. Not to mention handling all those billions of texts. And now it’s hit the big time — advertising on bradwarthen.com. (See the new ad at the top of the stack on the right.)

Today, coincidentally, I visited the nerve center of it all, the very synapses that handle 90 percent of AT&T’s wireless traffic in South Carolina. Where was that? Well, I can’t tell you. That was a condition of my going there. Very hush-hush.

But here are some pictures I managed to smuggle out. That’s OK; you don’t have to thank me. I live to serve.

AT&T’s Pam Lackey and other officials had invited a number of media and economic development types out to let us know that the company has spent $125 million this year in SC to improve wireless service, including new cell sites and the upgrade of dozens of others. For instance, Forest Acres should see improved service from a new cell site at Trenholm Road and North Beltline. Meanwhile, 60 towers in Richland County have been upgraded with “enhanced backhaul connections,” which has something to do with enabling 4G speeds.

AT&T was showcasing its processing power today because increasingly, that’s what it’s about, explained Laurent Therivel, AT&T’s vice president and general manager of Mobility & Consumer Markets for North Carolina and South Carolina. Consumers are less interested in, say, how many songs they can store on a device; they want to make sure they have a good connection to Pandora. Even such apparently device-specific functions as Siri are all about the network. Smart as she is, if you don’t have a good network, Siri can’t think.

As we toured the facility, I heard a lot about MTSOs and RNCs and MSCs, and GSM vs. CDMA, and I nodded and hoped there wouldn’t be a quiz at the end. And tried not to bump into anything. And I kept my mouth shut as to what I was thinking: A bunch of wires running in and out of boxes, and that’s what enables my iPhone to work as it does? I still think it’s magic.

What’s the most interesting thing that I actually learned and absorbed, aside from the fact that AT&T is really serious about enhancing customer service? This: The whole thing runs on batteries.

Really. At  one point, we were in this room that was like all the others, except a little chillier and darker. But the stacks of electronic paraphernalia in that room consisted entirely of batteries rather than high-tech switching equipment. Basically, the idea is that it doesn’t matter whether the grid is working or backup generation, so long as the batteries get recharged. If there’s an outage, the network never knows the difference.

I would never have guessed that, although I suppose that’s one way to make sure the call — or text, or data — always goes through.

21 thoughts on “Where the synapses meet: AT&T’s switching center

  1. Steven Davis

    Everything runs on batteries in the IT world. Power cords are just to recharge the batteries… like your laptop.

  2. Mark Stewart

    I think I’m not that excited that 90% of AT&T’s wireless traffic passes through one building.

    Redundancy and risk mitigation are tricky subjects – and we only find out what the real choke-points are in a sytem when the proverbial fan gets hit. Here’s hoping their plans never get tested!

  3. j

    Mark you’re right. I know where the location is and they are vulnerable just like Verizon and other carriers lost 6,400 cell sites in Irene a couple of months ago.
    They had back up generators but no back up plan to supply the fuel for the generators once the fuel was consumed. Just let a contractor cut a fiber cable and you see how as they used to say “you’re.. isolated from the Bell System!”
    Batteries are used to have an instant bridge prior to the generators coming to full power to keep them recharged and carry the load. AT&T has about a four-hour battery carry for sites that don’t have generators in place. They bring portable ones to those sites and have a lot of trouble during certain storms doing that.

  4. Mark Stewart

    Of course they are. I am only smart enough to know I don’t know much about the world.

    There is a huge profession built around disaster recovery and interruption avoidence. And yet we have seen the best plans either steamed-rolled (Northeastern blackout or a Tsunami, for example) or torpedoed by someone overlooking the one small detail that turns out to be a critical path item (far too many examples to choose from).

    The problem is that one can’t test for the unexpected. Sometimes N+1 redundancy is only an illusion. Sometimes things fail. Sometimes we fail.

  5. Silence

    As a long-term benefical AT&T shareholder, I have been very pleased with their dividend policy and their offerings. I have been a U-Verse customer ever since it became available at my house. I had a 100% positive customer service experience with it throughout the installation process and for the last few years.

    I was thrilled to leave Time Warner Cable behind, due to their abysmal customer service. The TWC technicians I dealt with were always subcontractors, showing up without uniforms, in their personal van or SUV, when they’d show up at all. I had to take 3 days off work just to get cable installed, due to delays, technician incompetence, and missed appointments.

    As soon as AT&T U-verse became available, I signed up. Imagine my delight when a uniformed AT&T professional technician/installer showed up at my residence, at the appointed time, in a pressed clean uniform, driving a new clean AT&T service truck. He gave me his business card with the customer service number, and his own cell number on it as well.

    Up until a recent failed receiver that took two hours to diagnose, the service has been great, as has the customer service. I hope AT&T can maintain a great level of service for what is an excellent product.

    That being said, as a shareholder, what the heck were they thinking with this T-Mobile deal? Why did they think that the regulators would let this deal go through? What’s up with a $4B breakup payment to T-Mobile? What investment banker convinced management and the board that this would be good for the shareholders? If I’d wanted to own T-Mobile, I’d have just taken my dividend checks and bought some of it.

  6. Steven Davis

    Do people actually believe that this location is “Top Secret”? Because it is far from a secret.

  7. j

    Kathryn, I love that acronym! Wish I had thought of it. That’s been my experience with them for the last few years.

  8. `Kathryn Fenner

    Not original to me, I must confess, but apt!

    We had the experience of Prof. Fenner (Computer Science PhD) cancelling our landline, and assuring me it wouldn’t disrupt our DSL. Bereft of home internet and getting the shakes already, he called TWC to get broadband, and kept correcting them that they could not call our landline to confirm the appointment, b/c ha ha, that’s why we needed broadband. Guess which line they called to confirm the appointment, not once but two separate instances.

  9. `Kathryn Fenner

    If Apple provided ISP services, at any price, I’d sign up. Far and away the best tech experiences I’ve ever had.

    Or LL Bean?….

  10. j

    Kathryn, it took me three years to negotiate free broadband and cable for our libraries and school as we would not renew their franchise agreement. Having requested and received a letter from their Regional Manager to that effect, it took us over 3 1/2 months to get it transferred to a new facility with their lines just 50′ from the new building. It was unbelievable just like trying to deal with AT&T.

  11. Ralph Hightower

    Former NCR CEO, Chuck Exley, when AT&T decided that they would become a computer company with a hostile takeover, said “AT&T should change their slogan to ‘Reach Out and Grab Someone.'” NCR built the building in West Columbia on Platt Springs Road where Time Warner is now located.

    We switched long distance to Sprint. We would still be BellSouth customers if they hadn’t switched their name to AT&T.

    In 1994, I worked as a contractor for one of the competitors to AT&T, MCI at Cedar Rapids, IA.

    Downtown Cedar Rapids had stunning women. I wondered where the average were; then, I had to pay a field visit to an operator call center.

    Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotions” fits the situation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yGCHPmfqT0

  12. Steven Davis

    “If Apple provided ISP services, at any price, I’d sign up. Far and away the best tech experiences I’ve ever had.”

    Does your husband, the Harvard educated computer professor, laugh at you when you start talking about computers?

    Apple tech support consists of two phrases, “Let me run back and get you another one” or “Let me get your address and I’ll send a return shipping label”.

  13. `Kathryn Fenner

    My husband is the biggest fan of Apple–he introduced me to a Mac II back when we first met, and it was love at first sight. For the record, his Harvard degree is only in physics; he did his graduate work in computer science at the University of Chicago…and no, he doesn’t laugh at anything I do, other than intentionally funny things, except get right and left confused. He didn’t even laugh when I took C++ from him in Maine and mucked up my programs. There isn’t much better way to build confidence than to have an awesomely qualified person think you’re okay–both my husband and my piano teacher fall into that category.

    I have no problem with Apple’s sending me a shipping label, since they simultaneously overnight the replacement–my husband had a pixel out on his new cinema screen and they did just that. They also fixed my laptop while I waited, for free, so why do you say that? We have also used the phone service, albeit rarely, since everything works so well, and gotten personable, American-sounding, very helpful, humans every time. I <3 Apple.

Comments are closed.