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The Passive Approach

September 1, 2007
by Michelle Grey
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On the crucial decision of whether to go with an active or passive wireless network, Platte Valley Medical Center chose the latter

Harold Dupper

Harold Dupper

The growing demand from staff and patients for greater access to mobile devices means hospitals are feeling the pressure to implement wireless networks throughout their facilities.

The big question for most healthcare institutions is whether to go with an active or passive network—active systems are able to control electrons, while passive systems are incapable of controlling current. Although the debate is not new, it has been intensified as the cost and performance gaps between the two architectures have narrowed.

Platte Valley Medical Center recently selected Horizon, a medical grade wireless utility provided by InnerWireless (Richardson, Texas), to deploy at its new medical center. "The biggest challenge for us wasn't really the implementation of the network, but was making the decision to go with a passive network over an active one," says Harold Dupper, CFO of Platte Valley Medical Center, Brighton, Colo.

Passive versus active

Dupper claims that Vienna, Va.-based Mobile Access (active network) and InnerWireless (passive network) were the clear frontrunners in the wireless arena. However, what sparked his attention was hearing the CEO of InnerWireless, Ed Cantwell, describe Horizon as a wireless utility. "It's similar to many of the utilities you place in your building. For example, with an electrical system, you can plug any number of electrical devices into the wall, whether it is a toaster, a computer, or a TV. InnerWirless' distributed antenna system operates in a similar way—we can run a whole host of wireless applications off the same unified infrastructure," he explains.

Another significant benefit of selecting a passive system contends Steve Tobin, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, San Antonio, is that the total cost of ownership is often less than purchasing an active network. "Although an active system gives you modularity—it's divided into multiple active components that emit different signal strength and capacity—it consists of numerous elements which can get costly," he says.

In addition, because a passive system has fewer components and "around one third of the access points required for an active system," it requires less maintenance and repair. "You're getting more longevity out of a passive system than you are an active system," says Dupper.

However, Tobin says that having a number of active components gives the system a "tremendous ability to scale, not just during installation, but when you need to go back and add additional applications in the future." Scalability is an important issue for facilities, he says, not just in terms of adding new devices to the network, but also adding capacity to a network, especially as the amount of people using mobile devices increases.

The "deal clincher," says Dupper, was that Inner-Wirelss guaranteed signal strength, outreach capacity and containment for the system. "They said they would engineer a system in which we would receive 99 percent coverage in our building, and that it wouldn't leak outside the facility's walls, which can weaken signals and sometimes cause interference."

Supported devices

Similar to most healthcare institutions, Platte Valley needed its wireless network to cover the full gamut of wireless services and applications, including WiFi, VoIP, first responder communication, two-way radios and paging. "We were particularly concerned with the ability to integrate WMTS (wireless medical telemetry service) throughout our hospital," he explains. Wireless telemetry allows staff to continuously monitor a patient's vital signs from anywhere in the building.

Another important factor for Platte was ensuring that PCS (personal communications services) and cellular devices had consistent and reliable coverage. "The issue of maintaining a fail-proof PCS signal became particularly apparent after the Sept. 11 disaster. A lot of firefighters and first-responders couldn't maintain contact with people in the building because there were so many dead-zones within the twin towers," explains Dupper. The Brighton Fire Department now mandates that hospitals provide full in-building coverage for the department's two-way radios, which the InnerWireless network does, he contends.

Platte has also seen success with coverage of its paging devices, with the rate of coverage improving from 57 percent to 100 percent after the implementation of InnerWireless' antenna, says Dupper. Although paging devices are traditionally used by physicians, Platte has extended its paging services to include "hospitality-like" capabilities.

"There is a strong trend towards providing wireless coverage for patients and family members throughout the hospital. We have taken this one step further and implemented hospitality pagers at Platte. Patients that are waiting for results or to see a staff member no longer need to be tethered to the waiting room—they can go to the cafeteria or gift shop, and be paged when what they're waiting for is ready," says Dupper.