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Where I Work: Cone of silence

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If you tried to call Karthik Natarajan on his smartphone in his lab in Oregon, you simply would never get through. Ever, period. Karthik might as well be smiling at us from the dark side of the Moon.

The RF Testing Lab at Oregon’s Jones Farm campus, where Karthik showed us around recently, is a remarkable—even bizarre—place in this age of nearly universal wireless connectivity. This lab, the only large one of its kind at Intel, is utterly sealed off from all incoming earthly radio signals. What exactly does that mean? And why does it matter?

Right now, as you read this, you are awash in radio signals by the millions. It’s a Tower of Babel: your body is surrounded at this moment by everything from the BBC news service, to police radios from all over the planet, to hundreds of simultaneous airplane pilot communications, to GPS signals, to satellite TV, to many thousands of private cell phone conversations.

This is not usually a problem. Usually. However, to carefully test and validate Intel silicon-based WiFi and Bluetooth radio products, every last bit of that interfering electromagnetic chatter must first be screened out. This is because, as Karthik explained, the radio signals that Intel-based and other mobile devices pluck from the air (and then translate into everything from phone conversations to websites) are astoundingly weak—they measure in just millionths of a watt.

This is the reason that the lab where Karthik and the rest of his team in the Intel Communication and Devices Group (iCDG) work is completely surrounded—in the walls, ceilings, and floors—by an extremely fine copper mesh that is electrically grounded. This mesh stops all incoming radio noise dead in its tracks. If you flipped on your cell phone in the lab—which you wouldn’t want to do if testing was underway—you’d see zero bars. Not one. None.

To enter the RF testing lab, Karthik must pass through a James Bond-style series of heavy security doors, complete with hissing pneumatic safety interlocks, to ensure that not even a trace of the outside radio world can bounce in, even for an instant. The RF lab features no windows to the outside world, since a pane of glass means nothing to even a weak radio signal.

Intel’s wireless products are a key piece of our company’s push into smartphones and tablets and other connected mobile devices. The quality of these products is thanks, in part, to Karthik Natarajan and the others on his team who work in a radio cone of silence.

Editor's Note: Where I Work is a periodic series about unique Intel employee workplaces. 
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About the Author
Walden Kirsch is a journalist, editor, and photographer based in Portland, Oregon.