“Seamless mobile connectivity is essential to the smooth running of day-to-day logistics, building security and first responder communications in A&E admissions” says Steven Ballantyne of Spry Fox Networks, suppliers of advanced mobile coverage technology to enhance commercial cellular and public safety communications.
Over the last decade, mobile technology has transformed our daily lives; the way we work, the way we watch TV, the way we do our shopping and the way we pay for things. Now, as an unforeseen consequence of the current pandemic, it could be set to change healthcare. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the NHS has demonstrated its true worth, with hospital staff and in- the-field teams going above and beyond the call of duty to help save lives. However, what has been highlighted in the wake of the crisis is the antiquity of the communications infrastructures underpinning the majority of its day to day operations, and internal communications.
Smartphones have provided a semblance of normality during the health crisis
Medical professionals are expected to increase their patient quota, without compromising the outcome and deliver AI-driven prognoses that are tech-dependant using legacy networks and systems. Many routine processes, such as the delivery of urgently needed supplies, are labour intensive due to out of date networks and infrastructures. This holds particularly true for reliable mobile connectivity. Smartphones have been the solace to healthcare communications since the outbreak of the pandemic. They have allowed friends and families to remain in contact in the absence of real-world visiting hours; they have facilitated virtual consultations and been the driving force behind the rapid deployment of self-help services and apps to help reduce in-person contact.
Providing sprawling hospital campuses with the levels of mobile coverage needed for regular and first responder communications has always been challenging, not least because of their complex structures, the abundance of internal corridors/wards/stairwells and large underground areas used for parking, catering, storage etc. The mobile coverage problem has until recently been compounded by a reluctance to use third-party technologies to amplify mobile phone signals because of their perceived interference with ICU equipment. Ensuring reliable mobile coverage is particularly difficult in CCTV control rooms or A&E admissions which are often situated below street level. In paradox, the use of smartphones, and indeed other wireless devices in these very locations is fundamental to safety critical communications.
Mobile only strategies are becoming increasingly prevalent
Seamless mobile coverage is no longer limited to smartphone usage. Access to a high-bandwidth data network is the driving force behind a range of IoT driven applications, including light control, access control, sensor technology and CCTV systems. Even though most hospital buildings have Wi-Fi installed, quality of service (QoS) is dependent on the proximity of the router(s). Wi-Fi networks do not deliver the same levels of security as mobile networks, exposing users to data breaches and cybercrime. Seamless mobile connectivity is therefore essential to ensuring the levels of coverage needed for conventional cellular services and autonomous applications. Ubiquitous voice and data coverage for the different services they power, irrespective of mobile network, should therefore form part of a hospital’s critical communications network infrastructure.
Ensuring seamless connectivity is challenging locations is often overlooked
The reality, however, is often somewhat different and ensuring seamless connectivity in basements and other challenging locations can easily be overlooked. However, as the UK transitions from the Airwave network to the new 4G-based ESN (emergency services network) for safety critical communications, healthcare establishments will be obliged to take action because without a reliable 4G signal, first responders and blue light services will be unable to manage and co-ordinate an emergency situation. Not only could this potentially put lives at risk, it poses the question of who would be culpable in the event of a public enquiry?
Once the new ESN network has gone mainstream, the only way to guarantee the levels of voice and data coverage needed to enable first responder communications inside hospital buildings is to take the outside signal indoors using supplementary signal boosting equipment. This hasn’t always been straightforward either because of the high costs involved, lengthy deployment times, and strict rules governing their usage. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, thanks to relaxation to the mobile repeater rules for inbuilding usage. However, a primary requirement that must be taken into account is the meticulous monitoring of the different services utilising the mobile network to assure optimal performance for safety critical communications.
Mobile black spots are prevalent in built-up areas
The mobile coverage challenge is not limited to areas with poor outdoor coverage either. Inner-city hospitals that are well served by all the mobile network operators (MNOs) are prone to inconsistent coverage because of building facades and sophisticated design architectures which block or severely hamper mobile signal penetration. Other factors that must to be taken into account include the proximity of a mobile phone tower to a building in the first place, the network providers chosen to serve said building and the number of devices/services needing to simultaneously connect to the indoor mobile network.
As society slowly returns to normal, a crisis such as this has provided the wake-up call needed to overhaul legacy systems and networks used in healthcare. Not only does this provide the perfect opportunity to ensure that all hospital buildings are ESN-ready, uninterrupted mobile connectivity is central to transforming unsustainable processes that are both costly and resource-intensive into sustainable ones.
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