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Wireless WAN picks up where fiber network leaves off

A wireless WAN may never replace a wired network, but technological advances -- not to mention millions in federal broadband grants -- make wireless increasingly viable.

As health care organizations sprout new facilities across ever-greater distances and as wireless technology advances, some institutions are drawing up plans for wireless broadband wide-area networks (WANs).

Case in point: Iowa Health System is augmenting its highly reliable fiber optic network with a wireless broadband network that will connect not only hospitals and clinics, but ambulance companies, police stations and community colleges.

“There are a lot of community hospitals that want access to the Internet and to exchange data with other institutions at low cost,” said Tony Langenstein, IT director at Iowa Health System in Des Moines.

Iowa Health Network is not alone. Leisureworld Senior Care Corp., a nursing home and home care provider in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario, is converting to a wireless WAN that will take over from its DSL network, according to Daniel Neufeld, director of information systems.

Neufeld contracted with TeraGo Networks Inc., a wireless broadband network provider based in nearby Thornhill, to install radio antennae on Leisureworld’s buildings. The antennae will link to TeraGo’s network at a rate of 5 Mbps for both uplinks and downlinks.

The bandwidth and reliability needs of Leisureworld’s various facilities in the greater Toronto area are not as great as those of a hospital WAN, but there are some similarities -- namely, the need to handle large image files and provide network security that's compliant with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, a Canadian law similar to HIPAA in the United States.

There are a lot of community hospitals that want access to the Internet and to exchange data with other institutions at low cost.

Tony Langenstein, IT director, Iowa Health System.

In its DSL network, Leisureworld achieved high throughput thanks to the use of Steelhead WAN accelerator appliances from Riverbed Technology Inc. That appliance will still be used for Leisureworld’s wireless links, Neufeld said.

Using federal grants to fund wireless WAN implementation

Iowa Health System partnered with the Iowa Communications Network (ICN) to win a federal grant calling for the construction of 22 wireless towers that will reach 1,800 institutions. "Our networks complement each other very well. We will work with them for interconnection points," Langenstein said.

The grant is part of the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP), a provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. As part of a $19 million BTOP grant, Iowa Health System received funds to implement a Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax) network to augment the capabilities of its high-speed fiber-optic Iowa Health Network.

Although the proposal called for WiMax technology, Langenstein said the technology ultimately deployed would not have to be WiMax, but could be another fourth-generation (4G) broadband technology such as Long Term Evolution (LTE). "We have 30 months to complete the grant, but wireless changes fast and the technology may change," he said.

So far, Iowa Health System has hired FiberUtilities Group LLC to manage the contract. The next step is to complete an environmental impact study. After that is finished, it will hire a contractor to build the wireless towers, Langenstein explained.

To encourage institutions to participate in the wireless WAN, the ICN may purchase wireless equipment and donate it to participants. From then on, the institutions would have to supply their own equipment to tie into the network, Langenstein said. As for the ICN, after the grant is finished, ongoing funding for the wireless network implementation will come from its own budget.

However, it should be noted that wireless alone is not the answer. Langenstein said Iowa Health System’s foray into wireless in no way replaces its highly reliable and “unparalleled” 3,200-mile fiber optic network, which spans Iowa and parts of Illinois.

Stan Gibson is a Boston-based contributing writer. Let us know what you think about the story; email

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