Despite concerns from healthcare officials, federal regulators have opened up the wireless frequency used by remote monitoring equipment in hospitals – such as cardiac and fetal monitors – to a wide range of new devices, while also expanding the buffer zone around those hospitals to prevent interference.
The Federal Communications Commission voted to amend its Part 15 rules to enable "TV white space" devices to use channels in the 600 MHz and television broadcast (Channel 37) bands. The ruling covers unlicensed fixed and personable/portable white space devices and unlicensed wireless microphones.
"Unlicensed devices have grown from basic garage door openers and cordless phones to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies to the 'Internet of Things,'" the ruling stated. "The commission's Part 15 rules permit unlicensed devices to operate on unused TV channels, the so-called 'white space' spectrum. Following the upcoming incentive auction, there may be fewer white space frequencies in the television band for use by such devices."
At the urging of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, the board also amended the rules so that any waiver requests would automatically trigger an increase in protection zones around health systems to up to three times the size of the current 380-meter zone. The new zone would remain in place until the FCC ruled on the merits of the waiver request.
"Wireless medical telemetry devices and radio astronomy services will continue to have interference protection on Channel 37," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during the Aug. 6 meeting. "Unlicensed users also gain access to Channel 37 in areas where these other two are not using it."
Hospital officials had lobbied against the changes prior to the FCC's ruling, and were not pleased with the outcome.
"We believe that the technical rules adopted today by the FCC, which would allow unlicensed devices to operate in relatively close geographic proximity on the same frequency as hospitals' Wireless Medical Telemetry System (WMTS), is not in the best interest of patients," Rick Pollack, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, said in a letter sent to the FCC following its ruling. "These unlicensed devices may cause interference with wireless monitoring, preventing doctors and nurses from receiving vital information. There are more than 360,000 WMTS patient monitors in hospitals today, many of which are used for women and infants during labor and delivery and critical heart surgery patients."
Prior to the FCC vote, the AHA had joined with Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in seeking a three-month delay so that the FCC could develop a better solution that "protects patients while enabling the safe use of TVWS (TV White Space) devices."
"Hospitals and professionals rely on WMTS (wireless medical telemetry service) devices every second of every day to keep patients alive and safe," the senators said in a joint letter to Wheeler, dated Aug. 5. "It is essential that WMTS devices can continue to operate without any interference from TVWS devices. As such, we urge you to give full and fair consideration to the comments submitted by more than 150 hospitals in over 40 states, as well as many nurses and medical professionals, regarding the critical nature and substantial benefits of WMTS."
In his letter, Pollack acknowledged the efforts of Pai in securing a larger buffer zone around hospitals, but said the FCC "ignored technical considerations in setting the distance and will require each hospital to demonstrate that larger protection zones are necessary."
"Many hospitals do not have the staff expertise and resources to comply with this technical rule," he concluded. "We remain highly concerned that if the rules adopted today are left unchanged, patient safety could be compromised. We will continue to work with Congress, the FCC and device developers to seek a remedy that puts patients first."