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Ofcom stares into healthcare crystal ball

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With an aging population there's going to be bundles more cash to splash on health care in years to come, if you believe UK regulator Ofcom and this year's edition of its future technology report, the Wireless World of Tomorrow.

The admittedly optimistic economic predictions see the cost of healthcare rising to £215bn by 2025 - more than double what it is today. Even more optimistically, Ofcom predicts that by 2025 "trust in technologies is no longer a problem as their reliability and security have improved".

The report splits the wireless needs of the aging, and rich, population into those used on (or in) person, devices installed in the home, mobile systems for ambulances, and those utilised in hospitals or similar places of medical care. Ofcom predicts an increase in treatment at home, particularly for convalescence and recovery, where wireless technology is expected to make constant monitoring possible outside traditional hospitals.

Starting at the largest scale, Ofcom expects commercial cellular networks to be widely used, but also accepts that today's TETRA network - used exclusively by the emergency services - will be insufficient for tomorrow's wireless healthcare. The regulator expects to see a TETRA replacement, using WiMAX or LTE, to emerge and provide the emergency services with decent levels of bandwidth.

Meanwhile Wi-Fi, operating at both 2.4 and 5GHz, is expected to provide a great deal of non-critical functionality, though not within ambulances. With every ambulance touting Wi-Fi a large-scale accident could easily become swamped with signals as emergency services converge.

Ofcom notes that "safety critical systems should be supported by dedicated spectrum", and provides three alternatives to providing such spectrum:

  • In the USA the FCC has allocated 608 to 614 MHz, along with 1395 to 1400MHz, for their Wireless Medical Telemetry Service. Allocating the same frequencies in the UK would make equipment cheaper as companies could market it in both countries.
  • Space surrounding the ISM bands, at 2.4 and 5 GHz could be used, as most equipment can be tuned to such frequencies, which would also keep costs low.
  • An entirely new frequency band could be allocated.

Ofcom would like the NHS to step in and manage any frequencies allocated in this way - ideally setting up an internal department that could monitor healthcare spectrum usage and sub-allocate bands, as well as advise Ofcom on which of the above options would be most appropriate.

The report makes no mention of charging the health service for spectrum, but it would be an obvious development and fits Ofcom's ideology: if the army can pay up, why not the NHS?

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