Wi-Fi 6 and healthcare
January 15, 2019 by Jay White
The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) has brought forth an ever-growing number of devices that use Wi‑Fi® technology. As more and more devices are equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity, networks are struggling to keep up. Imagine congested ecosystems like office buildings, airports, or stadiums. These high traffic areas are constantly changing, with hundreds to thousands of devices all struggling to be heard. Networks simply can’t cut through the noise to service every device efficiently, resulting in slow speeds, dropped packets, connection loss, reduced productivity, and at the end of the day, frustrated users. Wi-Fi 6, based on 802.11ax, is the next step in the evolution of Wi-Fi with a focus on network efficiency. Access points (APs) and clients can have all the speed in the world, but that doesn’t matter if the network doesn’t have the capacity to handle the growing number of devices and services fighting for spectrum. Wi-Fi 6 is all about working smarter and more efficiently to revolutionize Wi-Fi performance. This latest and greatest specification is designed to improve the way Wi-Fi networks work by adding significantly higher capacity, better coverage, and most importantly reduced congestion for better user experience.
Features and benefits of Wi-Fi 6
The key features and benefits of Wi-Fi 6 are listed below. More detail is available in a paper released by Wi-Fi Alliance® titled Wi-Fi 6: High performance, next generation Wi-Fi®.
- Downlink and uplink 8x8 MU-MIMO: Wi-Fi 6 improves network efficiency and overall capacity by offering 8x8 MU-MIMO, increasing the number of MU-MIMO clients with which APs can simultaneously communicate. This is particularly beneficial for high-bandwidth applications.
- OFDMA: OFDMA allows a single packet to serve multiple clients, reducing transmission latency.
- New modulation: Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM which allows devices to send more data per packet versus512-QAM and 256-QAM in previous specifications.
- Target wake time: Target wake time brings a better way to handle packets, significantly increasing a device’s sleep time and improving battery life. With target wake time devices can remain asleep for longer periods of time and only wake up when absolutely necessary. This is particularly beneficial for battery powered devices such as patient monitors, infusion pumps, respiratory equipment, and sensors.
- Backwards compatibility: Wi-Fi 6 is backwards compatible with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac.
How does Wi-Fi 6 benefit healthcare?
Wi-Fi 6 addresses use cases where there are many devices in one space. Hospitals are a perfect example of congested, high traffic, constantly changing environments that would benefit from Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi is common in hospitals given the many benefits it provides. Devices are connected and communicating for accurate patient records and real-time data analysis. Nurses can monitor many patients remotely from one main station, receiving alerts and observing data captured each second on their health. Doctors can make informed decisions with accurate and up-to-date patient information, leading to better patient outcomes. Patients can feel safe, knowing that they will always receive the correct dosage of the right medication. However, with an ever-growing number of wireless devices comes a lot of noise.
Hospitals are dynamic buildings with multiple wireless devices per person, variability with people and devices constantly on the move, and noise from other technologies.
Wi-Fi 6 focuses on the entire environment and improving the overall hospital/wireless experience for all Wi-Fi devices. All those wireless devices mean that everyone is fighting for resources and it changes dynamically. So, Wi-Fi 6 establishes network efficiency by implementing the features and benefits mentioned above. While device throughput may not be particularly faster, everything is just more organized and efficient. Wi-Fi 6 eliminates contention which makes everything run better, and everyone has a better wireless experience.
For example, Wi-Fi enabled medical devices like infusion pumps can take advantage of scheduling based resource allocation. Along with other devices and APs, the infusion pump can negotiate and define a specific time to send data, reducing contention and overlap between users. With OFDMA, up to 30 other devices can share a channel with the infusion pump, rather than taking turns. As a result, the infusion pump will see reduced power consumption from significantly increased sleep time and may even drop fewer packets. Wi-Fi 6 enabled infusion pumps and other wireless medical devices will work better, stay connected better, and be more reliable for an overall better experience.
Over the years, Wi-Fi has become a vital mission-critical tool for enterprise wireless connectivity that has expanded beyond the capabilities of its networks. With the growing number of devices using Wi-Fi and the emergence of the IoT, Wi-Fi networks must be able to manage dense usage and increased data traffic for multiple applications and services. Wi-Fi 6 delivers new features and improvements that enable networks to meet the growing demands of consumers as well as the multitude of devices. Building on the success of its predecessor, 802.11ac, Wi-Fi 6 takes a communal approach to Wi-Fi by improving the experience for all devices rather than an individual device. Wi-Fi 6 improves network efficiency and overall capacity with downlink and uplink 8x8 MU-MIMO, uses OFDMA to increase multi-user functionality, allows APs to send denser packets with a new modulation mode, and perhaps most importantly, provides resource scheduling for a more organized approach to handling packets. For congested environments like hospitals, these improvements will be invaluable. More and more medical devices are making the move from antiquated wired approaches to Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies. Updating those devices and APs to Wi-Fi 6 means more efficient and reliable patient care. Wi-Fi 6 works smarter and more efficiently to revolutionize Wi-Fi performance, bringing innovative connectivity to the real world.
Jay White is the Product Manager of Wi-Fi products (modules and antennas) for Laird Connectivity. He has over 10 years of experience in the wireless industry and has a passion for improving healthcare and patient outcomes through the use of wireless communications. He is an active member of the Wi-Fi Alliance Healthcare Marketing Task Group, AAMI Wireless Strategic Task Force, Center for Medical Interoperability, and HIMSS.