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Value of Wireless Site Surveys to Health Network Security

Wireless site surveys determine where to place access points to improve poor connectivity and security concerns.

- Wireless site surveys are important to every network assessment, but Wi-Fi enabled technology and the need for mobile access make site surveys a critical part of healthcare network deployment. When introducing the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard to an organization, conducting a survey will ensure that access points (APs) are performing at peak capability.

Wireless site surveys for healthcare facilities

HIPAA regulations play a major part in setting up a wireless health network. These networks aren’t directly responsible for protected health information (PHI) but can act as the first line of defense when it comes to protecting patient data.

Wireless networks can comply with HIPAA standards for administrative, physical, and technical safeguards by focusing on several components comprising a secure health network security:

  • Access control
  • Auditing
  • Integrity
  • Person authentication
  • Transmission security

Identifying where and how current networks need to improve to meet these standards can’t be done without a wireless site survey. Before the survey is conducted, understanding the current issues end-users are experiencing with network connectivity and overloaded bandwidth will point out known problem areas. The site survey will identify why these problems are occurring and map out solutions that can be implemented throughout an organization.

The purpose of site surveys is to establish the placement and number of APs needed for a facility to gain full and efficient wireless coverage. Surveys can also detect signal interference and outside access holes that can be potentially accessed by unauthorized users. Larger facilities such as hospitals can suffer dead-zones and other obstructions that may go misidentified if a survey is not conducted.

Many factors can contribute to blocking or distorting Wi-Fi signal strength. Placing the APs in different locations can help rectify some limitations, but others may not have solutions such immediate solutions.

Every facility is unique when it comes to the physical factors that can disrupt a signal. Factors such building materials, wall thickness, and approximation to other wireless networks in the area can all negatively impact a network because at its most basic level, Wi-Fi relies on radio frequency (RF) signals. Heavier materials often used in older buildings can block these signals, leaving each AP with a smaller coverage area.

A site survey will analyze an entire structure and identify physical obstacles that can block a signal and map out hot-spots and dead-zones over building blueprints. Conducting the survey and testing the network must be done while the network is being used in order to simulate connections during peak hours. If the survey is done after-hours, the tools can’t properly gauge how the network handles heavy traffic, mobile interaction, and how people can physically interfere with the signal.

When upgrading to 802.11ac from a legacy Wi-Fi standard, site surveys become critical to the success of the network deployment. Wireless-AC APs do not work the same way legacy 802.11n and 802.11g APs do. Replacing current APs with 802.11ac APs and expecting the coverage to be the same will not work.

Wireless-AC APs can handle much more traffic than older standards, but because of beamforming these APs often contain lower-powered radios. RF signal is focused between a client and an AP and not broadcast throughout and entire area, so less energy is wasted. While the client to AP signal strength is stronger, low-powered radios may not mean users can get further away from the AP; this depends in the vendor and AP type.

Constructive and destructive combination are phenomena that makes 802.11ac deployment particularly challenging. Constructive combination is essentially when radio waves come together to create a stronger signal. Destructive combination is when radio waves converge and cancel each other out, leaving no signal. These are both the result of multi-antenna technology and critical to determining where to place wireless-AC APs in high traffic areas. Adding additional APs to areas is not a good solution for any Wi-Fi standard, but for 802.11ac in particular, it can make the signal worse.  

Understanding how a network is being used by biomedical devices, mobile devices, and guests is key when complying with HIPAA regulations and keeping electronic health data safe. Many security events can be prevented by a well-planned and stable wireless network. Updating a wireless network is a huge undertaking, but investing time and money into a complete upgrade will reduce future cost of repairs and small upgrades, and increase user productivity.

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