Next Generation Wireless Technology Predicted to Have ‘Tremendous Impact’ on Healthcare

Posted November 13, 2018


As health technology grows increasingly connected, the launch of a fifth generation of wireless technologies (5G) is poised to impact the industry. This new generation of technology promises to deliver WiFi-like speed throughout the network, the ability to connect millions of devices simultaneously, and low latency (the delay between receiving and sending signals).

“We’re very excited about the transition from 4G to 5G technology. Telehealth is one aspect where we think it will have a tremendous impact,” said Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brenden Carr at a recent forum hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance. “To truly take remote patient monitoring and Internet of Things technologies to scale, we’re going to need to upgrade our network.”

Mobile carriers are jockeying to be the first to deliver 5G Internet. Verizon launched a version of 5G for home use in October in limited markets, and AT&T is planning to launch mobile 5G coverage by 2019. But 5G also faces new and fundamental challenges to developing its infrastructure.

“We’re at the very early stages of 5G adoption,” said Robert Sayle, a member of AAMI’s Wireless Strategy Task Force and the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Carriers are just now beginning trials in various metro regions, and handsets are on their way, but don’t expect to them be proliferous until 2020 at least.”

While 3G and 4G wireless technology relied on familiar, large cell phone towers that reach hundreds of feet into the sky, 5G instead uses backpack-sized antennas that can attach to existing utility poles. This means that deploying 5G requires 10–100 times as many cell sites to cover the same area as previous technologies, according to Carr.

To help spur deployment of those numerous smaller cells, the FCC adopted new rules and reformed old ones in 2018 that reduced historic and environmental review of small cell deployments at the federal, state, and local level, as well as limited local permitting fees. The previous rules were geared more toward the large, 200-foot antennas used in previous technologies, Carr said, and would have slowed down deployment of 5G cells, especially in small towns and rural areas.

“We’re focused on getting the regulations right because we need to make sure that 5G is going to get a fair shot in every community, with the telehealth and economic benefits that 5G can enable,” Carr said.

The increased speed and low latency of 5G is a promising new technology for hospitals. But, indoors, 5G poses challenges. 5G leverages high-frequency radio waves that reach into the millimeter wave part of the wireless spectrum. Today, millimeter waves are most commonly associated with airport body scanners, where they bounce off the surface of a passenger’s body in order to generate a contoured image. Similarly, 5G signals don’t do a very good job of passing through surfaces such as walls or doors.

“By its very nature, 5G signals will have difficulty penetrating the layout of a hospital with lots of rooms, walls, windows, and doors. Providers will likely need to install 5G small cells strategically to get the necessary indoor coverage,” Sayle said. “Wi-Fi is able to deliver many connectivity scenarios envisioned for 5G now, and these scenarios will only continue to expand with the adoption of Wi-Fi 6 technology. It’ll be interesting to see the dynamic between the carriers hosting 5G versus Wi-Fi 6 hotspots, homes, and enterprises.”