FCC Allocates Spectrum for Medical Monitoring
May 17, 2012

FCC Allocates Spectrum for Medical Monitoring

Peter Suciu for RedOrbit.com

At last week´s CTIA International Wireless 2012 trade show in New Orleans, the issue of spectrum space was addressed time and time again. And currently, even the FCC sees that spectrum is an issue that needs resolution.

“U.S. networks are now running at 80 percent capacity,” noted Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski during his keynote address.

What a difference a week makes.

This week the U.S. telecommunications regulator is expected to announce new plans to set aside spectrum to connect wireless medical devices for more convenient health monitoring. At the CTIA trade show several companies were also showing plans that would help bring medical data to the cloud and this would likely only be possible if spectrum space were made available.

While the project has reportedly been in the works for two years, the FCC has announced plans to vote on May 24 for the adoption of the so-called Medical Body Area Networks (MBAN). This system would include sensor devices that are similar in size and shape to a bandage, but with a low-power radio transmitter. The sensors would be disposable for sanitary and health reasons.

The primary function of such a sensor would be to monitor various vital signs including temperature, pulse, blood glucose level, blood pressure and respiratory health. This information could be used to provide data to doctors and other health care providers wirelessly — whether the patient is in a hospital or in the future even remote location.

The industry believes that MBAN devices could eventually move from hospitals and be used to monitor vital signs of patients from the comfort of their own home.

"The benefits are clear: increased mobility, better care and lower costs," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told CNN on Thursday.

But to accomplish this, mobility and better care will require spectrum. The new FCC rules, which are expected to pass an agency vote next week, could make the United States the first country in the world to actually allocate wireless spectrum specifically for medical devices.

Once passed — and at present there is no reason to believe it won´t pass — the devices would work with the new spectrum to monitor a patient, aggregate the results and transmit the collected data to a centralized computer system or cloud based system.

The biggest benefit is that it could provide real-time data to health care staff, along with providing patients a bit more comfort as they wouldn´t need to be attached to wires connected to machines. Thus small tasks, such as going to the bathroom or changing wouldn´t require disconnecting sensors and other wires.

There is also a cost consideration and MBAN manufacturers have suggested that it could even drive down health care costs for patients, with the disposable wireless sensors passing on saves or $2,000 to $12,000 per patient.

FCC approval is just the first step needed to be cleared before patients can expect to see any savings or get disconnected from machines in hospitals. Prototypes are still being fine tuned by such manufacturers as GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare, and next is the FDA approval process.

Among the outstanding concerns would be whether additional wireless signals are good for patients, but the FCC has thus far reaffirmed its position that the amount of radiation from the devices is so low that it should pose no health risks. By comparison, MBAN devices would use short-length radio waves at a frequency actually lower than Bluetooth devices.