FCC Approves Dedicated Wireless Spectrum for Hospital Medical Sensors

By Brian T. Horowitz  |  Posted 2012-05-25

FCC Approves Dedicated Wireless Spectrum for Hospital Medical Sensors

On May 24, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules that set aside spectrum for the development of Medical Body Area Network devices.

MBANs consist of wireless sensors patients wear to capture vital signs and transmit them to devices that physicians can monitor.

The FCC unveiled its proposal for the new wireless medical spectrum on May 17. The Aerospace and Flight Test Radio Coordinating Council along with GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare helped create the new spectrum rules.

A focus of the allotted spectrum is for indoor hospital use, where most critical monitoring takes place, Harold K. McCombs, an attorney at Garvey Schubert Barer specializing in communications, told eWEEK.

The FCC set aside the 2,360MHz to 2,390MHz range for exclusive MBAN use in indoor settings. This 30MHz range will require both registration and frequency coordination. Another 10MHz in the 2,390MHz to 2,400MHz band can be used in any location, such as in the home.

It remains to be seen how much of this potential 40MHz of radio spectrum medical facilities will require for monitoring of patients, according to McCombs.

Before deciding on the new spectrum, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Department of Defense addressed interference issues in the 2,360MHz to 2,400MHz range, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

"Aeronautical people work in the first 30MHz€”there must be registration and coordination€”and that's where the significant potential for harmful interference exists," said McCombs. MBANs will take over spectrum formerly used by test pilots.

"A hospital with a lot of beds might need the full 40Hz," said McCombs."If you have a smaller limited setting, it could use top 10MHz and not worry about the airplanes," said McCombs, referring to the 2,390MHz to 2,400MHz range.

With the new rules, the FCC was careful not to interfere with flight test operations, FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell noted in a statement.

MBAN Announcement Was a Feel-Good Moment Between Private, Govt Sectors

Despite potential reservations by the aeronautical industry, the MBAN announcement by the FCC was a "feel-good" moment of partnership between the private and government sectors, McCombs suggested.

The aeronautical industry went along with the plan. "They could have easily said no way in the world would we consent to this, but they figured out a way to make it work," said McCombs. "They were genuinely concerned that planes would fall out of the sky and crash," he added.

"The FCC's ruling is the culmination of strong collaboration between the medical industry, regulatory officials and aeronautical stakeholders," said Mike Harsh, vice president and chief technology officer at GE Healthcare, in a statement.

With the focus on indoor hospital settings for most of the new spectrum, a wireless channel for MBANs in ambulances could follow in the future.

"The hope is that down the road there will be a way to figure out how to use this technology inside the ambulance, inside rescue vehicles and in homes so that when patients go home they can continue to be monitored," McCombs explained. "But that's not there today," he added.

"Today's item will help maximize the potential of MBAN technology by providing access to relatively quiet spectrum where this technology can develop and flourish," Genachowski said in a statement.

The medical devices require protection from interference by WiFi and various consumer devices, according to GE and Philips, two vendors that are developing MBAN devices.

"The expansion of wireless monitoring capabilities will help allow earlier clinical diagnoses, decisions and interventions, supporting the delivery of better patient care at lower costs," Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer for patient care and clinical informatics at Philips Healthcare, said in a statement.

The new spectrum could work alongside new machine-to-machine (M2M) medical monitoring over 3G, 4G and WiFi networks, said Genachowski.

An example is the Pod from Sprint and Ideal Life, which the companies unveiled at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Pod's M2M technology enables patients to send vital health data from one device to another.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration must approve wireless medical devices, but the FCC and FDA have shown a willingness to work together, McCombs noted.

The FCC's new rules on wireless spectrum are part of its National Broadband Plan, unveiled on March 16, 2010, to facilitate broadband use in areas such as health care, education and government.

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