FCC MBAN plan called 'step in the right direction'

By Neil Versel

Darrell West Brookings InstituteLast week at a Brookings Institute forum examining how mobile technology influences health innovation, Brookings vice president and director of governance studies Darrell M. West repeatedly said that the Federal Communications Commission needed to open up dedicated wireless spectrum for healthcare use.

Two days later, the FCC approved a proposal to open up some of the spectrum—reclaimed when the nation switched from analog to digital television—for medical body area networks (MBANs) and for in-hospital wireless patient monitors. "The timing is really excellent. We really need more spectrum to support all the new technology that's coming online," West tells MobiHealthNews this week.

In West's opinion, established wireless technology like Wi-Fi has its place for transmitting data, as does Bluetooth, but those technologies may not be sufficient for the pending explosion in mobile healthcare adoption. "We need something that is more reliable," West says. "We need something that is dedicated for remote monitoring."

According to the FCC: "The MBAN concept would allow medical professionals to place multiple inexpensive wireless sensors at different locations on or around a patient's body and to aggregate data from the sensors for backhaul to a monitoring station using a variety of communications media. We conclude that an MBAN represents an improvement over traditional medical monitoring devices (both wired and wireless) in several ways, and will reduce the cost, risk and complexity associated with health care."

GE Healthcare, which formally petitioned the FCC to allocate spectrum for MBANs, likened wireless medical sensor networks to "Facebook for the body." In an interview with MobiHealthNews, West was pleased but more pragmatic.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," he says. "There are more fundamental issues that need to be addressed," West adds. He believes there needs to be not only more spectrum, but also more people connected to high-speed broadband networks, as called for in the FCC's National Broadband Plan from 2010. "We need a fast network that is also secure for privacy purposes," he adds.

For one, West did not see any surprises in the new FCC plan, which really is an amendment to a proposed rule issued back in 2009. "It's kind of consistent with past statements that have come out of the FCC," he says. "People in D.C. have been talking about this for a long time."

The FCC will take comments on the plan for 45 days following official publication in the Federal Register.