Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/14/ofcom_futures_healthcare/

Wireless can be good for your health

Ofcom stares into healthcare crystal ball

By Bill Ray

Posted in Broadband, 14th May 2008 09:01 GMT

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:

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?

The report also makes no mention of the bands currently used by hospitals and medical research sites around the country, 434 and 458MHz. In these bands the medical industry is a secondary user, so deployments have to be carefully surveyed before anything is put into place, and users have to be alert for new interference sources.

Implants do get some dedicated spectrum, from 402 to 405MHz, which is harmonised across Europe and the USA. There have been questions about congestion within that band but Ofcom reckons that's just a perception problem, though they'll keep it under review.

A couple of bands are also reserved, across Europe, for social alarms - panic buttons and the like. These are very narrow bands near 170MHz and 870MHz, but the expected usage model - infrequent traffic with little content - means overloading isn't expected in the next 20 years, unless lots of oldsters suddenly need help at the same time.

RFID is also expected to make great changes in healthcare, with medicine bottles and medical supplies all being tagged, and tracked, within the next two decades. Hospitals will know the whereabouts of every pill box and bandage in the building, for a start. Intelligent boxes in the home will also alert patients when they should be taking a pill, along with wirelessly contacting the authorities if they fail to do so (whereupon they will no doubt be able to check the medical insurance situation before deciding what to do about it).

But none of that requires new spectrum - just effective use of what's already allocated, and the money to make it happen. Luckily the baby-boomers have made fortunes from their properties, and invested wisely in pensions, so should be able to afford to be looked after in their dotage by man or machine. The rest of us will just have to rely on luck.

Ofcom is planning to spend the next 12 months researching how the entertainment industry might be using wireless technologies between now and 2028. We'll be watching those developments with interest. ®