CNET has this story about how “Hospital Techies” (notably medical monitor manufacturer GE) are worried that white spaces devices will mess up their medical systems.
Bluntly, “hospital techies” have bigger problems. As the CNET article observes, but lightly passes over, some unknown number of hospitals are using legacy medical monitoring equipment that will stop working after the digital transition. So while the odds of white spaces devices (WSDs) interfering with actual medical equipment on the approved set aside, Channel 37, approaches zero, and WSD interference with legacy equipment is equally unlikely, we may face a total meltdown in poor hospitals of medical monitoring equipment.
Rather than waste time on white spaces, I would say manufacturers like GE Healthcare need to start working with the FCC (and Congress) to engage in a massive education and outreach effort equal to what the FCC has done with the NAB and retailers to educate the public. That means stop selling any legacy equipment, require manufacturers to notify customers that have legacy equipment that it may stop working, and find out how many hospitals are likely to lose medical monitoring equipment after the DTV transition happens. A little funding from Congress to help poor hospitals that can’t afford to upgrade wouldn’t hurt either.
But worrying about white spaces is like worrying about whether a candle will blow over when a brush fire is bearing down you. Unless folks wake up to the danger, we may get seriously burned.
More analysis below . . .
Some Heart Stopping Background
As always, it is useful to think about why we are in the fix we’re in. It helps to remember that the digital transition has actually been going on for a long time, even if most people didn’t notice until recently.
In 1997, the first full power DTV station went on the air in Dallas, TX. It immediately fried the wireless medical monitoring devices in the area. For years, hospitals legally used low-power devices in the TV bands to monitor patients — because wireless is much better than having a gajillion wires trail off you and because only stuff in the TV band will penetrate the thick walls most hospitals have.
Once the problem was discovered, the FCC moved pretty quickly. It set aside Channel 37 for wireless devices and stated it would clear that channel of television stations as part of the general reshuffling of TV stations that accompanies the DTV transition (remember, we’re moving TV stations around, that’s how we cleared off channels 52-69 to auction). But, in the late 1990s, no one knew when the DTV transition would happen. Congress did not pick a “hard deadline” until 2005. Back in 1998-99, when the FCC conducted this rulemaking, the transition was scheduled to occur gradually. So rather than require the medical community to migrate on a particular schedule, or ordering the manufacturers to stop making equipment that works on other frequencies, the FCC left it to the discretion of the manufacturers and the hospitals. Given that no one knew when the transition would occur, why force hospitals to buy expensive equipment on what might well turn out to be an artificially accelerated schedule?
And so the matter sat. Manufacturers gradually changed over their equipment, but no one knows when all manufacturers converted all their equipment (if they have) or when the last units that work on channels other than Channel 37 were sold (or if they are still being sold). And cash-strapped hospitals did what cash-strapped hospitals do — try to make equipment last and defer expensive upgrades.
So as of today, to the best of my knowledge, no one has any idea how much legacy equipment is out there. We may be looking at a huge problem, or a relatively minor hiccup. Worse, no one is responsible for knowing. Unlike the digital TV transition, where policymakers have spent the last year grappling with how to inform consumers, the FCC has mandated all kinds of labeling requirements for retailers, put deadlines on manufacturers to include digital tuners, etc., etc., no one has any responsibility to inform hospitals about the problem. Manufacturers can keep making equipment that works on other channels, and vendors can still sell legacy equipment that may stop working when we flip the switch on the conversion in ten or so months.
This past December, I went with my wife to the Annual Mid-Year Convention of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (for some reason, “Mid-Year” occurs every year in December, whereas “Annual” occurs every year in June; I assume there is some deep pharmaceutical reason for this). As I strolled the vendor floor, I stopped at every wireless vendor I could find and asked if they had any information on the compatibility of their equipment with the digital transition. Every single one of them said: “Huh?”
I am not reassured by this experience.
So What Do We Do Now
So now we have a problem. Some unknown number of hospitals are using wireless monitors that are likely to get fried on February 17, 2009 when we shut down analog and go entirely digital. That represents many millions of dollars in equipment upgrades for hospitals that probably can’t afford it. To make matters worse, most of these hospitals probably have no idea that this is on the horizon. And no one has any responsibility to deal with this mess.
Which is an important point to remember. This isn’t actually anyone’s fault. Unlike the problem with wireless microphones, where some manufacturers have knowingly been selling their ware to unauthorized users, the manufacturers here have played by the rules. Ditto the retailers. This simply fell through the cracks, because the FCC thought it took care of the problem ten years ago and events just kind of puttered along on their own power with everyone minding their own business and no one responsible for generally minding the store.
Mind you, this is not necessarily a crisis — assuming we actually tackle this as a serious issue. That means the FCC, Congress, the device manufacturers, and various medical organizations — such as the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) — need to focus on this and develop a plan similar to the one used to inform consumers about the upcoming transition. This will include:
1) Find out the scope of the problem. This is a relatively small market, as things go. The manufacturers or retailers can probably give some estimates on how much legacy equipment is out there based on sales records. Or the FCC can work with JCAHO to send notices to all accredited hospitals.
1a) It would also be nice to know if this stretches beyond hospitals. Is this equipment used in hospices, rehab clinics, or other health-related institutions? Is there a significant secondary market in used equipment, so that legacy equipment remains in circulation even after a hospital upgrades?
1b) This would be an excellent opportunity for a Congressional hearing to draw attention to the issue and gather some information.
2) Next, the FCC needs to take some preliminary steps to set up a time table and require notice similar to what it has done on the consumer side. For example, it is probably worth it for the FCC to prohibit further manufacture of equipment that works on channels other than Channel 37 (if such is still being made), and either prohibit further sale of such items to require notice that the equipment may not function after February 17, 2009 (just like it required for television retailers). The FCC should also require the manufacturers and retailers to send out notices to customers regarding which models will function after the transition and which may not.
3) The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) also has a role here, as these are regulated as medical devices. It should participate in any educational campaign, and may wish to consider whether to require recall of devices that will stop working after the transition.
4) Finally, it would be nice if Congress would authorize some money to help hospitals upgrade. After all, the “digital dividend” in the form of spectrum auction revenues was over $19 billion. Congress could (and should) authorize a few hundred million of that to help hospitals replace legacy equipment. Heck, Congress gave every consumer $50 for a set of digital rabbit ears. I think making sure medical monitoring equipment doesn’t get fried is worthy of the same investment.
The white spaces stuff is pretty small potatoes compared to the overall problem here. We have ten months to fix it, which should be enough time if we take the issue seriously. This isn’t a crisis, but it will take some immediate and concerted action to keep it from being a crisis. That requires leadership and cooperation among all the key stakeholders, the FCC, the FDA, and Congress.
Stay tuned . . . .