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One Antenna For All

August 1, 2007
by Michelle Grey
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Northwestern goes wireless with GE Enterprise Access single antenna infrastructure

Northwestern Memorial Hospital can now wirelessly support a full range of clinical and interpersonal mobile devices after deploying GE's universal antenna solution at its 3 million square foot campus.

Chuck Colander

Chuck Colander

Northwestern, an academic medical center located in Chicago, has completed two of its three planned deployment phases, having installed GE's wireless network in 1.5 million square feet of the Feinberg and Galter Pavilions.

"There's a growing need for a hospital's wireless network to support mobility, specifically the need to support mobile telemetry," explains Chuck Colander, director of technology management, Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Telemetry is a technology that supports the remote physiological monitoring of patients. Cardiac patients are expected to be up and moving quite quickly after surgery, he says, and there's a strong desire to continue monitoring vitals while they are mobile. "When we were looking to install a wireless network, it was really important that it had strong capabilities in the area of telemetry," says Colander.

The hospitals' previous wireless solution was more cumbersome and complex than it needed to be, contends Colander. Northwestern had installed what's called a "proprietary antenna," which is a myriad of antenna systems used to support the facility's mobile devices — one network of antennas for pagers, another for cell phones, another for mobile computers, and so on.

The battle

To combat this problem, Northwestern decided early on that it wanted to upgrade to a universal antenna solution. "We knew that we wanted an in-building antenna architecture that would allow us to support the whole gamut of mobile devices — from wireless telemetry, to Wi-Fi enabled mobile PC carts and wireless VoIP phones," he explains.

According to Colander, Northwestern solicited six vendors it perceived to be leaders in wireless arena. Three of them were eliminated immediately because their focus was almost entirely on cell phone access, and a fourth was eliminated because it didn't offer a single antenna solution. The remaining two contenders had a completely different approach to engineering, explains Colander, one solution used active electronics (the ability to electrically control electrons) and the other used a passive mode (devices incapable of controlling current).

"We gravitated towards the GE solution because they used active electronics, which we thought provided us with a better ability to scale," he says. As the facility grows it can actively add capacity, which means that the network can service new devices, while also providing service to existing devices that have increased in volume.

The thinking

The rationale behind installing a single antenna solution was that it would allow the hospital to increase coverage. "Many of the single device antennas only provided coverage in certain areas. With the new network, we no longer had to stand with our head out the window to receive a call on our cell phone," says Colander. More importantly, obstetricians, for example, can now continually monitor a fetus while the mother is walking around the hospital, he says.

"Some people get confused about what to call the technology, or who makes it, because two different companies are involved," explains Jeff Kunst, vice president of marketing, MobileAccess. GE Healthcare (Giles, U.K.) and MobileAccess (Vienna, Va.) have formed a strategic partnership to create GE Enterprise Access. "Enterprise Access utilizes the MobileAccess universal wireless network to deliver wireless services and frequencies on one infrastructure. This is also the first time that wireless mobile telemetry service (WMTS) is delivered on the same broadband infrastructure," Kunst says.

Prior to installation of GE's wireless network, Northwestern came up with a "risk management strategy" for the implementation of all technology to be installed in new buildings. "It's imperative that we install the technology in existing buildings first, and then roll out the solution in a new facility once we've ironed out all the creases. The principal being that it is better not to open up a building using a technology that we've never dealt with before," says Colander.

For that reason, the hospital started off with what it called "a proof of concept." The IT team took a very limited area, one floor in one of the smaller buildings that houses the ambulatory surgery unit, and deployed the solution there. "We learned some key lessons by conducting the implementation in this fashion." The most important being the process of figuring out how many antennas were needed at a certain location to provide the signal strength necessary for the different types of devices. Wireless devices used in the operating room need different signal strength than those being used in the cafeteria, for example. "Essentially it was trial and error, but we once we knew the formula, we could apply it on a much larger scale," says Colander.

Healthcare has been one of the earliest adopters of wireless technology, says Stan Schatt, vice president and research director of networking, Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based ABI Research. "The primary reason for this is that there is such a focus on mobility. Historically doctors have had to carry two to three different devices when walking around the hospital," he explains.