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Considering 802.11ax for Healthcare Wireless Networking

Evolving Wi-Fi standards like 802.11ax call for organizations to reaccess their healthcare wireless network to ensure the best connections possible.

healthcare wireless network

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Healthcare wireless networking technology continues to advance, and organizations need to keep an eye on upcoming standards and how they will affect future connectivity.

The upcoming wireless standard, 802.11ax, will help improve wireless connectivity so organizations can use more advanced connected tools.

The number of Wi-Fi capable devices including the Internet of Things (IoT) calls for wider bandwidths to handle larger file sizes and more connections. Currently, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) operates on the 802.11ac wireless standard, which was introduced in 2014 as the official standard.

802.11ac, or wireless-AC, brought new Wi-Fi technologies to the table including multi-user multi-input and multi-output (MU-MIMO), tri-band 5GHz range, and beamforming. Wireless-AC was also the first wireless standard that can potentially outperform a wired connection.

“IEEE 802 started a task group to investigate and deliver next generation WLAN technologies for the scenarios of dense networks with a large number of stations and access points,” said IEEE. “The proposal is specified as the IEEE 802.11ax amendment. Due to the significant network capacity increase achieved by 802.11ax, the term high-efficiency WLAN (HEW) is also used in reference to this new amendment.”

Similar to the introduction of 802.11ac, 802.11ax aims to make wireless connections significantly faster, while decongesting traffic and improving hardware performance for both access points and endpoint devices.

“The scope of [802.11ax] is to define one medium access control (MAC) and several physical layer (PHY) specifications for wireless connectivity for fixed, portable, and moving stations (STAs) within a local area,” the IEEE working group explained.

“This amendment defines standardized modifications to both the IEEE 802.11 PHY and the IEEE 802.11 MAC that enable at least one mode of operation capable of supporting at least four times improvement in the average throughput per station (measured at the MAC data service access point) in a dense deployment scenario, while maintaining or improving the power efficiency per station,” the IEEE continued.

“This amendment defines operations in frequency bands between 1 GHz and 6 GHz. The new amendment shall enable backward compatibility and coexistence with legacy IEEE 802.11 devices operating in the same band.”

The standard intends to improve local area connections and offer faster connections through wider channels. These wider channels will allow more data to pass so bottlenecking, especially during peak hours, will no longer be an issue,

802.11ax can also potentially extend battery life for endpoint devices due to faster signal. The less time the devices spends searching for a capable signal to transmit data, the less battery the device wastes on signal searching.

This latest standard is particularly beneficial to hospital environments because it supports the diverse digital tools typically found in a healthcare environment. Hospitals often have many access points in areas that may be limited for signaling, such as labs.

Healthcare organizations are also using many different devices, which can cause signal interference and performance degradation.

The rise of telehealth programs also increases the dependence on wireless for video and cloud access. Real-time analytics and data access also requires priority signaling but it can’t be at the expense of other data signals that can put a patient at risk, such as retrieving a record in the emergency room.

“Unlike previous amendments where the focus was on improving aggregate throughput, this amendment focuses on improving metrics that reflect user experience, such as average per station throughput, the 5th percentile of per station throughput of a group of stations, and area throughput,” said IEEE. “Improvements will be made to support environments such as wireless corporate office, outdoor hotspot, dense residential apartments, and stadiums.”

Healthcare organizations need to keep an eye on 802.11ax and the advantages it provides. The standard is expected to be released in 2019.

While upgrading hardware will help organizations take advantage of the improvements 802.11ax provides, replacing all hardware is not necessary and can be done strategically as a budget allows. Legacy devices can still be used with 802.11ax, but will be unable to take advantage of the improvements.

Healthcare organizations are relying more on data exchange among digital devices. Preparing for and taking advantage of improving wireless standards will help clinicians get the most out of their tools and help them treat patients faster and more accurately.

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