New Technology Promises Higher Quality, Lower Cost Wireless Service for Hospitals

By Michael McFarland

The proliferation of mobile devices and healthcare apps are combining to make smartphones and tablets a de facto part of our healthcare delivery system. However, today’s mobile services don’t work well inside hospitals because cell towers cannot penetrate building walls. This creates frustration among staff, patients and visitors who expect and depend on consistent wireless service to contact family members or stay in touch with the office during their stay.

Wi-Fi is part of the solution, but Wi-Fi alone is incomplete. First, Wi-Fi doesn’t support traditional voice calling. Because of this, patients and visitors are often forced to walk outside of the hospital to talk on their phones.

For non-staff—patients, visitors, visiting specialists, emergency workers, vendor technicians— logging in to guest Wi-Fi can be cumbersome. It requires them to find an available network and enter a password.

To fully provide patients and visitors with a consistently high-quality cellular experience, hospital IT executives need to complement their Wi-Fi systems with superior access to cellular data and voice services.

To date, many hospitals and medical facilities have deployed 2G and 3G-compatible Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) to deliver cellular service. DAS is a network of small antennas installed throughout a building, and is connected to a mobile operator’s base station housed in the basement or data center.

DAS has been a suitable solution for cellular coverage, but these systems require costly infrastructure upgrades keep up with today’s cellular networks, which have now transitioned to LTE and will soon need to support voice calls over LTE (VoLTE). Hospitals in particular need to protect their indoor environments from construction-related dust contamination, so the systems need to be software-upgradeable and as simple as possible.

A new technology called Cloud Radio Access Network (Cloud-RAN) small cells provides an LTE upgrade that complements existing 2G and 3G DAS systems to support the latest 4G LTE services. Cloud-RAN small cells are attractive for three key reasons: they can be implemented at a fraction of the cost of upgrading DAS to 4G; their installation and monitoring is simple, similar to that of managed Wi-Fi systems; and unlike residential small cells (sometimes called femtocells), Cloud-RAN small cells support multiple wireless operators. Hospitals need multi-operator support so they can accommodate patients and visitors who use different wireless carriers.

For hospitals that do not have a DAS currently in place, there are two options. One option is to purchase the latest 4G version of DAS, but this can be cost-prohibitive because 4G DAS requires costly antenna, cabling and base station components. The second option is to install a 3G DAS in conjunction with Cloud-RAN small cells for 4G. This is an attractive route because it takes advantage of mature, stable and lower-cost 3G DAS, while leveraging the benefits of Cloud RAN small cells for 4G. And as LTE continues to evolve, cloud RAN small cells are inherently better suited to evolve with it than DAS systems are.

As hospitals and health care providers work to leverage the capabilities of mobile applications and services, Cloud-RAN small cells are emerging as a way to provide the consistent, reliable high-quality service needed to realize the promise of these technologies, and ultimately to improve the hospital experience for both patients and visitors.

Michael McFarland is senior director of product managing and marketing for Airvana.

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