In early 1998, Dallas television station WFAA was one of the first to switch from analog to digital broadcasts. What happened at nearby Baylor University Medical Center started a debate over use of wireless spectrum near hospitals that continues today.

As the New York Times reported back then, on the day WFAA switched to digital, wireless heart monitors in Baylor’s heart surgery recovery room stopped working. Technicians were unable to quickly determine the reason for the breakdown, and auxiliary bedside monitors were brought in. At night when the station stopped broadcasting, the wireless monitors started working again—until morning when broadcasting resumed.

In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission—which governs the allocation and use of spectrum—dedicated unused Channel 37 of the television band for use only by hospitals to support wireless telemetry. Now, a new FCC rule takes away that exclusivity and the American Hospital Association is crying foul.

Now, the FCC, which is preparing for a congressionally mandated auction of available spectrum on the 600 MHz and television broadcast bands, wants hospitals to share Channel 37 with unlicensed devices, such as garage door openers, wireless microphones, cordless phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

AHA recently conducted tests at three hospitals, finding nearby unlicensed devices caused significant interference anywhere from 315 to nearly 1,000 meters away from a facility. The association asked for an exclusion zone of three kilometers between hospitals and the use of newer devices to be allocated spectrum, as signals can travel that distance. FCC, after consultations with stakeholders across multiple industries, set an exclusion zone of 380 meters.

Also See: Feds Promote Test Beds for Wireless Medical Devices

To be fair to the FCC, spectrum is a much more valuable product today than it used to be, acknowledges Erik Rasmussen, vice president of legislative affairs at AHA. The FCC wants to allow more use of spectrum to encourage development of new technologies. Still, 380 meters is a woefully short exclusion zone for hospitals and Rasmussen believes the agency has not given the matter enough thought as technologies have dramatically changed. “FCC is used to being in a world where if you drop one call or have a little interference, it’s not a big deal.”

The FCC, according to a commission spokesperson, initially proposed 100 meters between unlicensed devices and hospitals, and hospitals initially said they needed 300-360 meters, so FCC gave them 380 meters, more than tripling the size of the initial safe zone. That said, the FCC wants to be flexible and hospitals needing a larger safe zone can request it. “If a facility detects potential harmful interference, we can immediately restrict outside access and expand exclusion to 1 kilometer.”

Further, the FCC likely is three or four years away from authorizing unlicensed devices to actually use the spectrum in Channel 37, the spokesperson notes. While the FCC is finalizing the rule now to get the ball rolling on auctioning off spectrum starting in March 2016, the agency will consider amending rules if necessary and has told stakeholders this, the spokesperson adds. While the agency can’t speculate now on whether the upper limit of an exclusion zone could be raised as high as three kilometers, “We’re ready to address or examine any proposals stakeholders come up with in whatever time period they raise it.”

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