In a room with no cell service, Verizon works on the future of mobile

A radio-shielded lab is part of an expanded S.F. Innovation Center for helping startups

If you think your house has bad cellular coverage, Verizon Wireless has you beat: A small, windowless room high up in a San Francisco office building gets no service at all.

That's not because carriers are neglecting the bustling South of Market business district where the room is located. Instead, it's because Verizon is paying so much attention to what's going on there.

[2013 Tech Industry Graveyard]

The room with zero bars is in the heart of the Verizon Innovation Center, where Verizon network and business experts help developers of new wireless devices and apps to turn their ideas into products. The center opened there about two years ago, setting up shop in a hotbed of startup activity in the tech-heavy Bay Area.

 Verizon center views

Stephen Lawson

The Verizon Wireless Innovation Center in San Francisco has doubled its great views of the Bay Bridge by expanding to two floors.

Now Verizon has expanded the center, and at a media event on Tuesday it showed off the facility and some examples of technologies that have been in the incubation process: a chest patch that reads vital signs and transmits them wirelessly, a gateway for wireless automated homes, and a bike lock that uses GPS (Global Positioning System). At this center and another like it near Boston, Verizon tries to help startups get these kinds of technologies from lab to market in six to eight weeks, according to Gagan Puranik, associate director of Verizon's innovation centers.

There are plenty of places to turn in the Bay Area for help in getting a startup off the ground and selling products, including a herd of venture capitalists and scores of established tech companies seeking partnerships or acquisitions. Verizon has its own value proposition for innovators that includes resources such as that radio-shielded room.

As the country's biggest mobile operator and a global telecommunications juggernaut, Verizon can offer the help of its radio-frequency engineers, expertise on cloud computing, security, telematics and other areas, and insights into the user experience, Puranik said. The company can also open up its network APIs (application programming interfaces) and offer the assistance of an application development team based in nearby Palo Alto.

The shielded room, about the size of a walk-in closet, only has space for a small desk, a couple of chairs and a bank of network equipment. It isn't meant to stay wireless-free. Instead, Verizon engineers use current and emerging wireless gear to create special radio environments for testing.

The tiny lab lets product developers test out how their devices or apps will work in different situations, such as strong network signals near a cell tower, weak coverage at the edge of the cell, and even traveling at high speed through a certain type of network, Puranik said. All these can be simulated in the sealed room, using Verizon's regular frequencies, because the signals from Verizon's commercial network can't interfere there, he said.

All this makes mobile development more sophisticated than simply creating technologies with a theoretical mobile network in mind.

The room can also be used for pre-testing new devices in preparation for official certification to run on the Verizon Wireless network. Certification can take four to six weeks, but time in the shielded lab may help vendors get their products closer to the carrier's requirements and speed up the formal process, Puranik said.

The carrier started the Innovation Center to help create an ecosystem that would drive usage of its LTE network, which now carries about 60 percent of Verizon's mobile traffic, according to Verizon Executive Vice President and CTO Tony Melone. About 300 potential partners have engaged with Verizon through the Innovation Centers, more than a dozen resulting products are on the market, and there are more than 100 in the pipeline, he said. The recent expansion in San Francisco doubled the center's size to about 32,000 square feet.

 Verizon lab door

The Verizon Wireless Innovation Center in San Francisco has a small room shielded from all radio signals, which the company uses to simulate different network conditions. A thick metal door helps keep signals out.

Verizon doesn't charge for its assistance at the Innovation Center, and it doesn't try to acquire a startup's intellectual property or corner an exclusive right to sell the product or have it run only on the Verizon network, Puranik said. Though it wants to get promising new wireless products into its retail stores and other sales channels, startups are free to work with other carriers. The idea is to expand the mobile ecosystem, which should in turn help Verizon.

"We're trying to create a bigger pie," Puranik said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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