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How not to get slammed by the FCC for Wi-Fi blocking

Bob Brown | Feb. 11, 2015
Healthcare giant’s wireless communications manager offers advice for navigating WiFi waters.

Simply put, wireless product vendors and wireless engineers must take seriously the need to design wireless systems properly and responsibly, especially when designing and operating in critical environments.

How does your organization handle Wi-Fi management and security, and specifically, how do you deal with Wi-Fi hotspot users near or within Partners facilities?

From day one, we understood we would have to share the radio spectrum with other users; that is to say, we knew the rules did not allow us to claim ownership of the radio spectrum or priority above anyone else. We knew we were allowed to protect our network from malicious activity, but if others were using the spectrum in good faith, we had to respect their legal right to use their equipment, too.

As it pertains to neighboring networks and Wi-Fi hotspots, we don't try to maximally exploit our infrastructure. We intentionally leave overhead so if someone else is using the same spectrum, the infrastructure's collision avoidance protocol can function properly. We also understood from the beginning the best way to control interference from other stations is to host them on your network. There isn't a lot you can do for neighboring APs, other than design your system with the appropriate link budgets. To deal with hotspots in our environment, we offer free Wi-Fi access. Most people are happy to use the free Wi-Fi and we don't have those hotspots banging away against our network.

Only twice in twelve years have we had problems with neighbors that we couldn't unilaterally mitigate with sound engineering. The solution was simple. I walked over, knocked on their doors, introduced myself and explained what was going on. I knew that due to the property of reciprocity, if their system was interfering with my system, my system was interfering with their system. We had a mutual reason to work together and it took only a few days to reconfigure our systems to coexist. We haven't had any problems of this nature since. There was no way that relying only on automated management systems would have resulted in this outcome.

Finally, if the application is absolutely critical, for example if a patient's life could depend upon it, we don't use Wi-Fi. Those applications go on a wire. There are a few notable exceptions where we work hand-in-hand with a medical device manufacturer to install their product to exacting specifications and design our system to avoid theirs. Otherwise, we follow the FCC's plan in those respects. We don't offer an SLA for Wi-Fi. We tell staff to use it the best they can, but understand we share the spectrum and can't control every aspect of it. Not understanding this aspect of wireless seems to be the biggest flaw for most users. There are some interesting and tragic reports in FDA databases covering the last few decades, showing how patients have been harmed or met an untimely demise because someone put too much faith in the magic of wireless systems... usually when sending medical alarms to staff. We should all pay great heed to those reports before marching off to Utopia, hand-in-hand with our wireless vendors.


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