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Report: Government spectrum should be shared with private sector

A presidential advisory group has recommended public wireless spectrum be shared with private groups to spur economic development. The move could impact health IT.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has released a report calling for the sharing of wireless spectrum among multiple users, which could increase the amount of available spectrum and have implications for emerging health care technologies.

In the report (.pdf), titled Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth, officials wrote the current method of allocating spectrum -- which provides entities with exclusive use of a given bandwidth -- is no longer sufficient. Demand for wireless spectrum is increasing rapidly, and allowing for exclusive use is creating scarcity. This shortage could hamper the development of new technologies, including devices that monitor patients remotely, the report authors said.

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To solve the problem, the authors recommend developing policies that allow for the sharing of wireless spectrum between multiple groups, including private and public entities. The report suggests the federal government identify 1,000 megahertz of spectrum currently under federal authority that could be shared; set up a Federal Spectrum Access System, which would set the ground rules for spectrum sharing; establish spectrum sharing management protocols, and put in place policies that encourage federal agencies to share spectrum that is currently under their purview.

In a briefing to announce the release of the report, Mark Gorenberg, chair of the PCAST working group, which developed the recommendations, said existing regulations governing bandwidth allocation have not been updated since the sinking of the Titanic, when government officials decided more reliable radio communication could have helped avert the disaster.

Gorenberg noted that at the time, radio devices were sensitive to interference from other radio signals, so each bandwidth user needed to be assigned a unique spectrum range to avoid problems. However, technology has since advanced to a point where this is no longer as important a consideration. The tools exist to make spectrum sharing possible.

Opening up greater amounts of wireless spectrum could spur new developments in health care, as well as other industries, the report states. Gorenberg said it may be possible to develop tools that monitor heart disease patients and alert health care providers when a heart attack is imminent, or to create new types of insulin pumps that constantly monitor diabetics' blood sugar levels and deliver insulin when it is needed.

These types of remote monitoring tools "could revolutionize the way patients are monitored and can contribute to improved patient outcomes, recovery and quality of life," Gorenberg said.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already started working on projects that would take advantage of spectrum sharing to improve patient care. In May, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski introduced a plan to share spectrum for use in medical body area networks (MBANs). MBAN devices are worn by patients, remotely monitor their condition, and report data back to health care providers. Because the devices are wireless, they allow patients to move freely.

The FCC announced three projects to demonstrate MBAN technology, which were conducted at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. One program attached lightweight monitors to pregnant women to track fetal health; another provided monitoring devices to elderly patients and those with chronic diseases to measure vital signs and alert health care providers of problems. A third used remote monitors to collect data from at-risk patients to predict sudden health deterioration. All three demonstrations used shared spectrum to wirelessly transmit data.

At the briefing announcing the new PCAST recommendations, Genachowski said this type of technology could have major benefits for patient care.

"It will allow patients to be untethered from the wires that connect them to monitoring devices in ICUs and hospitals," he said.

In order to make the most of available bandwidth, government entities will need to change the way they use wireless spectrum, the report states. Currently, various agencies have exclusive rights to broad swaths of spectrum, which takes bandwidth away from private uses. However, spectrum that is used for things like the flying of unmanned aerial drones and radar is not always used consistently.

The report recommends making this bandwidth available for private uses when it is not being used for government purposes. By using spectrum for several purposes, it may be possible to multiply the amount of available wireless bandwidth by a factor of 1,000, the report states. This would effectively turn a finite resource into a virtually unlimited supply, said John Holdren, co-chair of PCAST, assistant to the president for science and technology, and director of the Office of Science and Technology.

"In contrast to how physicists have long viewed the electromagnetic spectrum -- namely, as a limited resource provided by nature on an as-is basis -- this report takes on a new perspective, which recognizes the enormous potential of sharing," Holdren said.

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