Originally published in-print by Journal of mHealth
Prior to 2020, wireless connectivity for healthcare professionals at work meant either Wi-Fi or public LTE delivered by service providers. However, with the FCC's decision to make the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum available for private use in the US, healthcare IT departments can now build their very own private mobile networks within their own environment. Additional, clean and free spectrum next to Wi-Fi - with highly predictable quality of service - is exactly what the doctor ordered for many organizations (pun intended).
Known as a private mobile network, these new systems represent an entirely novel solution for healthcare IT professionals to deliver predictable wireless performance within modern medical facilities. With security, privacy and reliability as core tenants, CBRS-based LTE and 5G wireless networks can now be deployed and managed by IT organizations.
Healthcare institutions, including hospitals, clinics, campuses and even testing centers are actively evaluating private mobile networks as a potential solution for their telehealth needs. If your clinical staff are taking advantage of iOS and Android devices to get their job done while at work - they might enjoy the benefits of this new express lane.
Let’s start with a basic definition. A private mobile network is very similar to the public cellular network that most of us use every day with our smartphones and tablets. It relies on technologies like LTE and 5G as the wireless protocols for connectivity, but the networks themselves are not owned and operated by wireless service providers like Verizon, AT&T, and others.
A private mobile network is owned and operated by a single healthcare organization and geographically bound by that company’s property such as a campus.
In the U.S. these networks use the CBRS spectrum band between 3.55-3.7Ghz and can be used by healthcare organizations to give them their very own LTE or 5G network - while managed as easily as the Wi-Fi network these firms almost certainly already operate.
So why add a third wireless option when Wi-Fi already exists? Several reasons that are specific to healthcare organizations. First, it’s generally agreed that CBRS-based private mobile networks will actually work together with existing Wi-Fi networks and augment their capabilities. Right now, many Wi-Fi networks in healthcare today are already stretched to the breaking point in terms of their ability to offer measurable service levels for latency and throughput for the mission critical applications running on staff-operated private devices.
Private mobile networks, by design and per standard, come with configuration of service level objectives: latency, throughout, packet error rate and jitter metrics can be pre-defined against a given set of mission critical devices and/or applications – making sure that what’s most important is protected.
CBRS-based private mobile networks are also ideal for connectivity across outdoor settings such as a medical campus, parking lots, ER sites, and other situations where staff may be required to roam from one building to another. With the ability to cover up to one million square feet of outdoor space with a single outdoor wireless access point, a private mobile network significantly reduces the amount of outdoor cabling required to support outdoor wireless connectivity - reducing a good chunk of your capital expense. Given the significant outdoor coverage benefits, CBRS-based private mobile networks can enable critical mobile connectivity across not just hospitals and campuses, but also newly constructed make-shift healthcare treatment locations and drive-through testing centers.
For example, a typical drive through testing center like the one at 945 Sansom St. in Philadelphia covers an area of approximately 60,000 sq feet, which can be covered with a private LTE network of just 3 access points. Due to its strong rate vs range performance, deployment and management of the radio infrastructure can also be accelerated.
Private mobile networks also offer a feature critically important to healthcare organizations - the ability to control and secure data on its network. A private mobile network offers a rare combination of very tight security with device level network access control, always-on centralized encryption and certificate based device / user authentication with SIM cards.
The rise of private mobile networks are an inevitability for healthcare, particularly as 5G networks become a key component in healthcare’s ongoing digital transformation. There will almost certainly be many different ways of implementing them, depending on the specific needs of the IT department. Some organizations will want to have this supplied to them and managed by a third party, like a service provider or channel partner. Others may wish to simply purchase an end-to-end system, and install and manage it themselves.
The opening of the CBRS spectrum in the United States - with many variations of it on the horizon across different countries - has made private mobile networks a real potential asset for healthcare for many years to come.