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But they never say 'Can you hear me now?'

Cellphone firms say tests ensure quality, data remain private

WESTBOROUGH -- In real life, the "Can you hear me now?" guy never actually utters the catchphrase.

Instead, Verizon Wireless engineer Marc Lefevre logs 3,000 miles a month on New England highways while an arsenal of phones in the backseat makes calls, playing recordings of phrases like, "These days a chicken leg is a rare dish," while the computer on the other end of the line analyzes audio quality.

All of the major cellphone carriers use drive tests to find dead zones, map signal strength, and count dropped calls. And all claim to offer superior service. Verizon Wireless boasts "the most reliable wireless network," Cingular Wireless claims "the fewest dropped calls," and the Sprint Nextel network calls itself "the nation's most powerful network."

But the copious data gathered by the companies is not available to consumers, and advertising claims based on studies by third parties have led to contentious legal battles. Last week, state Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Boston Democrat, began a push for more transparency.

"They all make claims," said Morrissey, who plans to introduce legislation next year that would require carriers to make public, semiannual reports about their networks. "There must be someone keeping track of it. If we could get some basic information that was considered reliable," consumers would have more power navigating the battling superlative claims.

Cellphone carriers have said it is too early to comment on Morrissey's proposal, but CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group that represents the cellphone industry, has said it would oppose such local regulation.

To make the service claims even more difficult to measure, the quality of the network may fluctuate over time. In winter, there are generally fewer network problems because call-impeding foliage drops. Around 5 p.m. on Friday, call traffic surges as people driving home call to check in or make plans.

"Someone like Verizon or Cingular may have the best coverage out there, but it doesn't mean their network is the best quality. The integration of devices on the network, the wireline part of it," has an impact, said Phil Redman , research vice president at Gartner Inc.

Sensitive to customer demands, the companies have made significant investments in their networks in recent years.

Sprint Nextel spent nearly $7 billion on its nationwide network in 2006, adding more than 3,000 cell sites and upgrading its data network.

Cingular finished integrating its network with the AT&T cellular sites after the companies merged two years ago, and has spent $13 billion upgrading the national network over the past two years. The company spent $253 million on its network in New England this year, and there has been a 70 percent increase in cellular coverage in New England, said Mike Maus , executive director of network for New England.

Verizon Wireless has invested $5 billion a year, on average, in its wireless network for the past seven years, and spent more than $300 million on the New England network over the past year.

This fall, T-Mobile USA said it would expand its national network, spending $4.2 billion to buy wireless spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission.

The carriers use data collected by workers like Lefevre to analyze call traffic, build towers, and upgrade their networks, as they increasingly look to sell their customers on using their phones to access TV, music, and the Internet.

Teams of engineers also work to increase capacity to prepare for a new condo development or the rush of college kids back into Boston each fall. For special events, such as the Boston Marathon, the carriers will also bring in COWs, or "cells on wheels," to handle the surge of cellphone users.

Finally, there are people like Lefevre who actually drive the streets, keeping one eye on the traffic and the other on the laptops mounted in the passenger seat.

Cingular has 200 employees devoted solely to maintaining the network in New England, about 30 of whom drive New England roads. There is also an internal hot line for Cingular employees to report network problems.

"We have people that own certain territories, managers and their teams responsible for watching how cell sites perform," Maus said. When there are problems, employees will "do drives in and out of that area, back and forth along the same route, to make sure it's working."

Sprint Nextel does road tests, and relies on its employees across the country to get feedback on network quality.

In the back of Lefevre's unmarked white SUV, phones from all the major carriers make 2 1/2 -minute calls filled with nonsensical but phonetically balanced chatter. The sentences -- read by men, women, and even spoken in different languages -- represent the full range of inflections and vowel sounds that people typically use when talking on the phone. A second set of phones and wireless cards send data -- digital files containing the preamble to the US Constitution -- to gauge the speed of the connection.

"We try to replicate the customer experience," said Richard Enright , director of engineering responsible for New England at Verizon Wireless. "People have really raised their expectations. They want the phone to work everywhere -- in their garage, in the basement."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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