Wireless patient devices at risk from proposed Internet use


WASHINGTON – Losing the audio feed during “Monday Night Football” may seem like a crisis for some sports fans, but it’s nothing compared to losing the signal that monitors a critically ill hospital patient.

The technical glitches share a potential source: the proposed use of unoccupied TV airwaves for high-speed Internet service across the country.

While television networks and wireless microphone users have been fighting the idea, the medical community is also sounding the alarm over possible interference from unlicensed portable gizmos operating in a nearby spectrum. The spectrum’s valuable wireless real estate has attracted technology companies and consumer advocates who say it shouldn’t remain vacant.

Hospitals and medical device makers say using empty channels for unlicensed uses is a matter of life and death, not just a source of static for entertainment outlets. It could disrupt the monitoring of patients’ heart rates, blood oxygen levels and other vital signs at medical facilities.

“If they stop functioning for a period of time, you don’t know the patient’s physiological condition. This is patient care at its most basic level,” says Dale Woodin, executive director of the American Society of Healthcare Engineering, an arm of the American Hospital Association.

Medical device maker GE Healthcare, a unit of General Electric Co., has also weighed in, asking the Federal Communications Commission to proceed carefully in its decision to permit broadband use through those idle channels, commonly known as “white spaces.”

In an FCC filing last week, the company requested stricter standards to protect wireless patient-monitoring equipment, such as heart, blood pressure and respiration devices, from being overwhelmed by other equipment operating in nearby channels.

The FCC is conducting tests to find an efficient and interference-free way to use the spectrum for broadband, but several trial devices have either broken down or failed.

The white spaces, prized for their ability to travel long distances and go through walls, will be made available when the nation makes a transition to digital TV next February. After the switch, broadcasters will occupy channels 2 through 51, but almost half those channels in some cities will remain fallow, especially in rural areas.

Technology companies, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Dell Inc., have said low-powered, unlicensed and portable devices such as cell phones, laptops and BlackBerrys, can operate in the empty spectrum without harming other signals. They say it will provide affordable high-speed Internet and spur innovation.

But its potential effect on everything from baseball calls to banjo picking has attracted increasingly loud and powerful opponents. Television broadcasters, telecom carriers and wireless microphone makers and users, including Major League Baseball and the Grand Ole Opry, have rejected several proposals from the tech coalition.

“The white spaces proposals being considered by the FCC could turn ‘Music City’ into a silent city unless they get it right,” Steve Gibson, music director and producer of broadcast audio for the Grand Ole Opry, said in a statement Tuesday. The country music venue is operated by Nashville, Tenn.-based Gaylord Entertainment Co.

Unlike the broadcasters and wireless mic users, GE Healthcare and ASHE say they’re not against the technology coalition’s proposal, but want tougher technical standards implemented. They’ve have had several discussions with the FCC and technology companies to find a compromise.

Attorney Scott Blake Harris, who represents several technology companies, said Tuesday the coalition has agreed to the substance of GE Healthcare’s proposal and that it presents no “insurmountable technical hurdles.”

Since the 1980s, hospitals across the country have been using channels 33 to 36 to operate unlicensed wireless patient-monitoring devices. In 2000, the FCC allocated channel 37 for exclusive use of medical-monitoring equipment after a 1998 incident in which a TV broadcaster interfered with a nearby hospital’s low-powered heart monitors.

While most hospitals have migrated to the protected channel, some still operate outside it.

GE Healthcare, one of the top manufacturers of such devices, previously proposed that if white spaces are approved for Internet use, the FCC should prohibit such operation within channels 33 to 36 for at least one year — until February 2010. This would give dozens more hospitals monitoring thousands of patients more time to migrate to the protected channel 37, said Tim Kottak, engineering general manager of systems and wireless for GE Healthcare.

“Some are very aware of this pending (initiative), but others have no idea and that’s a risk,” he said. However, hospitals aren’t required to move to the protected channel.

Those measures may not be enough. Unlicensed, portable Internet devices operating in the adjacent empty channels next to the exclusive medical-device one may be too powerful, bleed into it and “overload” hospitals systems, which normally emit weaker wireless signals, said Kottak.

The medical community wants the FCC to enact stricter standards for how much power Internet devices can emit in the adjacent channels to lessen risk to medical equipment.

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