FCC auction will complicate patient-monitor airwaves

By Adam Rubenfire  | March 18, 2016

Despite objections by hospitals, the Federal Communications Commission is proceeding with an airwave auction next week that will force unlicensed wireless devices onto a channel previously reserved for patient monitors.

The FCC will sell licenses for much of the 600 MHz spectrum, allowing only unlicensed use on Channel 37, which has so far been blocked off exclusively for Wireless Medical Telemetry Systems, which allow vital-sign sensors to communicate with patient monitors and nurse station monitors. Allowing unlicensed devices onto the channel could cause interference with equipment that is critical to patient care, hospitals and advocates say.

Although the FCC has established 380-meter zones around hospitals where use of unlicensed devices will be prohibited, those zones are inadequate, said Erik Rasmussen, vice president of legislative affairs for the American Hospital Association. The AHA is calling for a standard buffer zone of at least three kilometers around hospitals. The FCC has said the zones can be extended at the request of a facility if needed.

“Hospitals need to continue using dedicated bands free of interference for patient monitoring,” Rasmussen said in a statement. “We are concerned that the protection zones for hospitals are not large enough, and once unlicensed devices begin operating nearby, patient safety may be endangered.”

While unlicensed devices still need to be certified by the FCC, new devices will likely have a more powerful signal than WMTS, which could make it easier for them to interfere with patient monitoring, said Mitchell Ross, a wireless health expert at the Center for Medical Interoperability. Staff at hospitals are relatively inexperienced in the telecommunications area, so they’ll have to flag problems to administrators who might then have to sue to stop interference, he said.

Electronics manufacturers have argued that freeing up the channel will allow for innovation in health gadgets and remote patient monitoring. But Ross said those kind of devices can use Wi-Fi or cellular networks – they don’t need to take space from WMTS.

“Patient care needs its own allocated frequencies,” Ross said. “600 MHz was a great stage for it to be until somebody said, hmm, I’d like to make money off that.”