September 15, 2003
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Hospital's Road to Wireless Data Starts with Voice

Many hospitals are deploying wireless LANs to give doctors, nurses, and others easier access to patient records systems, while eyeing the wireless LAN's potential for handling voice communications as well. But Rice Memorial Hospital is starting with voice-oriented wireless LANs before moving to data services. The 100-bed hospital is in Willmar, Minn. (population 19,000), about 100 miles west of Minneapolis.

Rice has had wireless voice service in place for eight years, originally using a proprietary 900MHz phone system from Spectralink. In early 2002, the hospital decided it was time to replace the aging system with one that supported IP. "My goal was to put in an IP-based system, knowing down the line we were going to support IP data devices," says Jon Barber, the hospital's telecommunications coordinator. He expects to add patient monitoring devices, a nurse-call system, and equipment tracking via the wireless network, for example. "It just made sense to put in a system that can accommodate all of these."

In all, there are 51 voice-over-wireless-IP handsets deployed. Rice also has 10 computers on carts for bedside charting (they include an external battery pack so the notebooks can function for an entire shift), plus three wirelessly connected Web stations for radiology image viewing in surgical theaters.

Barber chose a multifrequency radio system from MobileAccess that lets it support not just the 2.4GHz spectrum used by 802.11b but also the 850MHz spectrum used for cellular service (to add in-building coverage for cell phones, whose signals had been blocked by the building's materials and design). When done, the wireless system will handle both IP telephony and data over 802.11b and cellular service using a Mitel 3300 switch and Ericsson 3800 gateway, respectively. It will not support 802.11a, since the chosen radio system does not extend to its 5GHz range. The total cost was about $400,000, including about $20,000 spent on phones that did not work well and were abandoned in favor of a new supplier.

The hospital continues to use a separate patient monitoring system that uses a 2Mbps, frequency-hopping wireless network for its patient monitoring system. Barber would love to replace it with direct spread spectrum technology such as 802.11b so it would work with the MobileAccess radios, but the vendor won't upgrade its application, which the nurses say is the best for their needs. Because it is in place in just two corridors and in the intensive care unit, the patient-monitoring system is not too hard for Barber to maintain.

Barber's system integrator, Norstan Consulting, started doing a site survey in April 2002 to determine access point placement, and installation began in the fall, with the work completed in mid-November. The old system was retained so Barber could phase in users of the new system. "I'm a one-person department, and there were a lot of things to bring online." There are still about eight users of the old system primarily maintenance staff who go in parts of the building that Barber never anticipated would need coverage, as well as in parts of the intensive care unit, where the shielded rooms meant to contain radiation used in cancer treatments from exposing others prevent wireless signals from coming in. "If you're designing a data network, you don't think of putting coverage in areas like the roof where you'd expect a phone to work," he notes, and such data orientation in his thinking caused some of the coverage gaps quickly uncovered by the maintenance staff. Barber expects to add access points in these locations to complete the coverage. (Barber did anticipate the needs of smokers, and had included the outside smoking areas in his original plans.)

Because the hospital had been expanded twice, it is full of double walls and various materials, making access point placement tricky especially for voice service, which requires very little latency and high signal strength to effectively carry voice transmissions intelligibly. "If you try to build a wireless LAN for data and then go to a voice system, it probably won't work the way you want," Barber notes, since data-oriented applications are much more forgiving. "Voice over LAN is not just another application," he warns. Barber also discovered that the original specification of 85dB signal strength was insufficient to transmit signals of sufficient strength to the wireless phones through the building, so his providers needed to revamp the system to 70dB, which requires eight times more power. The hospital is constructing a new building that will be built with the wireless LAN in mind, making deployment much simpler, Barber says.

Barber wishes he had not been a pioneer in his deployment, so he could have saved some effort and expense. But he has no regrets about delivering the network to the hospital staff. "This lets us respond to issues that require more immediate services, such as for patients, housekeeping, and maintenance."

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at

From our editors

A subscriber exclusive! IT Wireless's Summer 2003 Essential Products Guide is now available to subscribers. The 19-page PDF file contains a listing of key vendors and service providers, with summaries of their offerings and contact information. Categories include wireless network and client hardware, network and client software, and IT services. Download the directory now!

The Latest in Wireless Products and Tech

Although wireless technology is still in its early deployment phase, many products are fairly predictable, extending existing capabilities or mirroring options available from other sources. But recently, I saw three innovations that remind us that the wireless arena is open for more innovation:

  • Possio has developed a wireless client device that connects to 802.11, Bluetooth, and UMTS-TDD networks, automatically switching as needed. UMTS-TDD is a data-only third-generation (3G) cellular technology that IPWireless has deployed in some U.S. and other cities. It also lets multiple users connected via 802.11 share a UMTS-TDD connection.
  • Wireless Cables has released AirCables, small paired devices that plug into a computer's USB or serial port and the connected device's serial or synch port and create a wireless connection between them over Bluetooth connections. These can help reduce cord clutter as well as extend connections further than physical cords would allow.
  • Broadcom has demonstrated an 802.11 chip that uses as little as 3% the power of other 802.11 chips. The new chips are designed for use in mobile devices such as PDAs and notebooks where 802.11's relatively high power consumption reduces the devices' availability. No products using the Broadcom chips have yet been announced.

Not to say that solid, predictable hardware and software isn't useful these products form the backbone of any enterprise system. Among these types of products are the following new ones:

  • Extended Systems has released OneBridge Mobile Groupware, a messaging management system that distributes messages and validates delivery over multiple networks, including cellular data and 802.11. Formerly known as XTNDConnect Server, the system works with Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, and lets users connect into corporate systems as well as receive mail and other messages.
  • Foundry Networks has released a software upgrade to add wireless LAN support to its FastIron Edge line of switches.
  • Netopia has released its hot-spot-in-a-box product, which combined 802.11 access points with credit card processing and back-haul connections to let businesses set up public hot spots more easily. Nomadix has also released a similar product.
  • Intermec Technologies is releasing a slew of new products aimed at the logistics and inventory industry, including new 802.11g access points, RFID readers that plug into existing Intermec handhelds, a tablet PC, and an in-vehicle supply-chain system whose radios can be swapped out as access-point technologies in the warehouse are updated.
  • Gigafast is releasing new slim-line WI-Fi adapters and four-port wired/wireless routers/access points.

Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to


The Latest in the Wireless Marketplace

According to an international survey of business travelers released by Intel, 71% of business travelers are convinced that Wi-Fi hot spots will give them a communications advantage over their competition. While only one in 10 road warriors has tried Wi-Fi, nearly 90% see wireless computing in their future. While business travelers predictably identified airports (77%), hotels (76%), and airplanes (60%) as the places where they most need hot spots, they also expressed a desire to have wireless Internet access in automobiles, trains, and hospitals. This certainly does sound encouraging, but because the numbers from from a vendor with a vested interest and the actual survey method is unknown, the results should be taken with a grain of salt. However, the numbers do reinforce studies by various analyst firms that public hot spits are attractive to business travelers.

In a sign that the hot-spot providers are finally understanding that they cannot create walled empires, STSN, which has deployed hot spots at nearly 600 hotels, has reached roaming agreements with Gric and Boingo Wireless. Gric has about 2,300 802.11 and landline locations set up, while Boingo has about 1,400 802.11 installations.

The resort town of Whistler, B.C., is installing a Wi-Fi network that visitors and residents can access from local hotels, shops, and venues. The Canadian ski locale will be home to some Winter 2010 Olympic Games and has 2 million visitors each year. Just another sign of the continued broad rollout of public hot spots.

For advertising information, contact Manny Sawit at (510) 583-0855 or

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