Despite hospital opposition, the Federal Communications Commission is proceeding with a March 29 airwave auction that will force unlicensed wireless devices onto a channel previously reserved for patient monitors.
The FCC will sell licenses for much of the 600 megahertz spectrum, allowing unlicensed use only on Channel 37, which has so far been blocked off almost exclusively for Wireless Medical Telemetry Systems (WMTS). The systems 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 patient advocates say.
The FCC has established 380-meter zones around hospitals where use of unlicensed devices will be prohibited. But Erik Rasmussen, vice president of legislative affairs for the American Hospital Association, said his group 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.
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.
Electronics manufacturers have argued that freeing up the channel will allow for innovation in health gadgets and remote patient monitoring. But Ross said those kinds 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. “Six hundred MHz was a great stage for it to be until somebody said, 'Hmm, I'd like to make money off that.' ”