Deep inside the 43,000-square-foot Verizon Super Switch facility in Orlando, one of five Super Switches in the state and the brains of Central Florida's wireless communications.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/25/2011 3:45:14 PM ET 2011-03-25T19:45:14

During the CTIA Wireless conference, Verizon Wireless invited several journalists to take a tour of its Super Switch facility in Orlando, Fla. The 43,000-square-foot facility is one of five Super Switches in the state and it is the brains of Central Florida's wireless communications.

It was explained that the facility is called a Super Switch because of its ability to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but we suspect that Verizon simply wanted a punchy-sounding name to match the intimidating barbed wire fence that surrounds the five-year-old building.

While we would encounter countless machines, servers and an assortment of electronics during our tour, we found that there were very few people in the facility on the day of our visit. The only human beings we crossed paths with were the two individuals manning the control room, two people inside a classroom-like meeting room and our tour guides.

We were assured though, that the facility is bustling with activity in case of a hurricane. In fact, some of the operations staff will sometimes live in the building while working on resolving any issues. But don't worry though! Verizon Wireless provides them with places to nap, comfortable lounges and showers — not to mention that there are few places more safe during a hurricane in Florida.

This Super Switch facility actually has two switches — they're housed on either side of the control room — and they're part of a redundant system. So if one switch fails, the other one can take over — and in case everything goes wrong, the system is set up so that an entirely different Network Operations Center (NOC) could run the show.

Inside the rooms housing the two switches, things are quiet and spotless. So spotless, in fact, that several fellow reporters mused that they wished their apartments could be so clean.

Those thoughts were quickly forgotten when we continued walking among the racks of servers and encountered a shelf of test devices. The phones being used were nearly a decade old! "Will they crumble to dust if I touch them," we heard a cheeky voice question.

Our tour guides explained that despite being practically antique by tech reporter standards, the test devices were actually still in use by many Verizon Wireless customers and did the job just as well as a smartphone might've. They were simply there to cycle through voice and data tests to check how the network is performing — like an electronic version of the famous "Can you hear me now?" commercial.

As we continued our tour, we peeked into any room we could and we were granted access to just about any place we wanted to view. There were mazes of hallways, rooms where racks of equipment quietly hummed along, places where the roaring of machinery was nearly deafening, neatly arranged rows of cables and wires, and hundreds of blinking lights.

As we rounded a corner, we we received a warning: "Do not test your tongue on these batteries!"

Chuckles broke out and we stepped into a room housing enough batteries to power the facility for 12-14 hours.

And as if that wasn't impressive, we were shown what our guide dubbed the "Cadillacs of generators" next. A 1.5 megawatt beast and its slightly smaller 1.25 megawatt counterpart. We were told that the "switch guys are very proud" of the setup and how seamlessly they can switch to generator power if there's a need.

After getting some "Back to the Future" jokes out of our systems — "How many gigawatts is that? Does that mean it can travel through time? Great Scott!" — we circled back to take a closer look at the second switch room. This time we noticed that there was a great deal off empty space inside the room. We suspect that it will one day be used for racks of equipment dedicated to the 4G aspect of the network.

No farm animals to be seen! Verizon Wireless' GOATs, COWs, and COLTs are entirely mechanical.

Our idle pondering was interrupted as we were pulled away from the hypnotizing rows of blinking lights with a suggestion that we go look at some GOATs. Yes, GOATs.

It turns out that there are GOATs, COWs, and COLTs behind the facility. It also turns out that Verizon Wireless isn't actually running a farm, but instead uses some humorous acronyms.

A GOAT is a "generator on a trailer," a COW is a "cell on wheels," and a COLT is a "cell on light truck." This is equipment that can be dispatched to boost reception during a large event — such as the Super Bowl — or to keep the network running during a disaster scenario. We were told that the equipment is tested on site and can be deployed and set up in just a few hours when needed.

The introduction to the faux farm animals on wheels was the last part of our tour. We waved goodbye to the silent beats, headed back to our buses, and later chuckled as we drove past a competing carrier's retail store on our way back to the main road.

What was it doing so close to the heart and brain of Verizon Wireless?

Rosa Golijan writes about tech here and there. She's a bit obsessed with Twitter, loves to be liked on Facebook, and wishes she could hide out in a Super Switch facility during the next hurricane.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Explainer: Inside Verizon's wireless-communications 'brain'

  • The control room

    As soon as we walked into the control room, we saw the two switch rooms through walls of glass on either side of the control room.

  • Switch room

    Once we stepped inside the first switch room, we were in awe of how clean it was. The only specks of dust in the place probably came from our own dirty shoes.

  • Totally wired

    While looking at all the wires running through the facility, we couldn't help but wonder what would happen if we unplugged something. Everything was set up to be so redundant that we doubted there'd be even the slightest hiccup in the system.

  • Expansion room

    We noticed that many of the wire-covered towers had plenty of room for additional equipment and expansion

  • Ancient phones

    These phones may be ancient, but they basically behave as if they're in an electronic version of the "Can you hear me now?" commercial and constantly test the state of the network.

  • All charged up

    Don't lick these batteries! The rows and rows of power cells are enough to keep the Super Switch facility running for 12-14 hours.

  • Plenty of power

    Great Scott! This is a 1.5 megawatt generator which keeps things going if other power sources fail.

  • Switch room No. 2

    The second switch room has quite a bit of room for expansion!

  • Down on the farm

    No farm animals to be seen! Verizon Wireless' GOATs, COWs, and COLTs are entirely mechanical.

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