Now that cell phones and Wi-fi have proven to be safe and essential for health care facilities, there’s a race on to get signals into those buildings. This is proving to have some interesting possibilities, but is also bringing some technical challenges to hospital technology managers. Frequently buildings are too dense to allow good cell phone signal, while increased demand for Wi-fi and VOIP is putting pressure on the ad-hoc Wi-fi networks being built up in many hospitals. One solution gaining traction is to locate PCS, cellular and paging, and Wi-fi services centrally and create a series of ceiling-based transmitters to amplify and distribute the various signals. One company in the forefront of this is InnerWireless, which has announced several installation wins in recent weeks. I recently spoke with Jim McCoy, chief technology officer of InnerWireless, and Tuomo Rutanen of Ekahau to find out a little more about what’s going on inside the wireless world for hospitals.
Wireless and Wi-fi are different. InnerWireless’ technology deploys Wi-fi, as well as PCS, cellular, 2 way radio, 2 way paging and other signals. Conventional practice for Wi-fi is to deploy those points throughout a floor or department. Innerwireless co locates those Wi-fi access points at one place per floor, combine their outputs and then injects them onto their distributed antenna, therefore giving every user the strength of multiple antenna to access. This enhances Wi-fi data and more importantly VOIP performance. There tend to be around 6 distributed antenna per typical 20,000 sq ft floor, each one up in a ceiling panel where it’s installed once and forgotten about. All other services (cellular, PCS, etc) are piped to the same access point from aggregated through a main console room. And of course once the central points are in for cellular, it’s probably more cost-effective to layer Wi-fi into that system than to do it with ad-hoc networks.
In addition InnerWireless, Ekahau, and others are developing the ability to track patients, products and equipment in a cost-effective real time manner using the Wi-fi network–an always-on alternative to RFID which works sort of like an “indoors GPS”. They are both deploying tracking tags on people and equipment, and the size and price of those tags is falling rapidly. Ekahau’s approach takes advantage of the existing Wi-fi network, whereas InnerWireless uses its installed antennas and adds several more battery-operated sensors (probably 20 more per floor) to extend the accuracy of its trackers. Innerwireless is running their tracking over a different system within their infrastructure and are using the 802.15.4 standard for the tags.
These are two innovative companies attacking a key problem for health care facilities. Given the problems hospitals have locating their staff, patients and other movable parts, expect this technology to spread rapidly.