Wi-Fi blocking rules apply to hospitals, FCC says

A lot of consumers were happy to hear of the FCC's crackdown on Marriott International and the hotel industry in general for blocking or attempting to block Wi-Fi, but there's another group of venues where Wi-Fi management is extremely important: hospitals and healthcare facilities.

Since the Marriott admitted to deploying deauthentication protocol technology at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville and settled by paying a fine of $600,000 last fall, the FCC said it had received several complaints that other commercial Wi-Fi network operators may be disrupting the legitimate use of Wi-Fi hotspots. The FCC's Enforcement Bureau is investigating the complaints and will take action against violators.

In its enforcement advisory, the FCC said "no hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hotspots on such premises."

Asked if the prohibition extends to healthcare facilities, an FCC spokesman confirmed to the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), that yes, that was the case.

Because of government reimbursement incentives, hospitals across the nation are increasingly connecting medical devices via their hospital IT network, much of it wirelessly.

"Increasingly, we have the lives of our patients riding on the safety,  reliability and security of our networks," Rick Hampton, the wireless communications manager at Partners HealthCare System in Boston, told FierceWirelessTech. "I'm not saying that designing wireless systems to meet financial goals is a bad thing, but modern healthcare is already complex and filled with various risks."

To help mitigate the risk, Hampton said he was one of many who worked to develop an international standard on risk management for just this kind of activity, IEC 80001-1. The group included staff from the FDA, medical device manufacturers and hospitals, but "try as we might, we couldn't get any of the IT/Wi-Fi vendors involved," he said. "I helped lead a subgroup that agonized over recommendations to ensure safe Wi-Fi systems. We knew then, as now, that if someone is harmed when the network fails because someone didn't understand the legal and design limitations of Wi-Fi… well, that's a problem."

In comments to the FCC after Marriott and the American Hotel & Lodging Association petitioned the FCC for a declaratory ruling, vendors like Cisco Systems came out in support of the hotel petition's view that the use of 802.11-based network management security technologies does not constitute interference under Section 333 of the Communications Act, and therefore does not constitute "jamming" of another device.

Hampton argues that the FCC's rules are pretty clear, including here and here, on what is and is not allowed.  "Quite a few wireless engineers are complaining the FCC's recent announcements revoke their rights to protect the radio spectrum in their buildings," he said.   

"But the FCC rules never granted those rights to begin with and for a very good reason: Radio waves don't abide by geopolitical or property lines. Imagine the chaos that would break out in congested settings and urban areas if everyone were allowed to intentionally interfere with everyone else," Hampton said. "My hospitals are surrounded by condos and apartments, small retail shops, and educational institutions.  In one case, a hospital shares a wall with a large hotel."

Hospitals are affected not only by the Wi-Fi that they've installed for use inside their buildings, but also by all the Wi-Fi in the hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and other establishments surrounding them.

In fact, the intrusion detection system for Partner HealthCare System's Wi-Fi infrastructure registers several thousand rogue access points--virtually every one an access point belonging to one of its neighbors. "If I were to begin disassociating and/or deauthenticating my neighbors from their networks, and they were allowed to retaliate, a war would break out and no one would be able to use Wi-Fi.," Hampton said. "Whether people see it or not, whether they understand it or not, whether they like it or not, the FCC's rules are far more a protection than a hindrance."

When there is a problem with a neighbor's Wi-Fi, Hampton said he walks over to the establishment to talk it over with the venue management--but he doesn't block them, which would be illegal.

In a separate matter, the FCC is proposing to allow unlicensed operations to share Channel 37 with wireless medical telemetry service (WMTS). In its proposal to do so, GE Healthcare, in comments filed with the commission last week, argues that the separation distances proposed are inadequate to protect WMTS from co-channel, unlicensed operations. GE Healthcare wants the commission to correct some of its math and assumptions and if the commission does allow devices to operate in Channel 37 after developing the appropriate technical standards, it should limit such unlicensed use to fixed devices.

The American Society for Health Care Engineering of the American Hospital Association, which is the FCC-designated frequency coordinator for WMTS systems, estimates that WMTS systems are deployed in more than 2,700 unique locations and that there are about 200,000 WMTS devices operating on Channel 37. GE Healthcare points out that even one incident of inference can prove catastrophic to a hospital and its patients.

For more:
- see this AAMI article

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