Looking Into Your Wireless Network

By  Martha Walz — May 05, 2011

These days, an enterprise-wide wireless network is mission-critical. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a healthcare setting. Doctors and nurses now use wireless devices throughout the hospital alongside their own personal devices. Instant access to patient information at any point in the hospital is critical and could mean the difference between life and death.

The Kennedy Health System provides healthcare services ranging from acute-care hospitals to a broad spectrum of outpatient and wellness programs in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester counties in New Jersey. The system consists of three hospitals, an executive center, a management center, and multiple buildings on hospital campuses. Eighty percent of these buildings have wireless networks.

Kennedy Health is in the process of upgrading all of its access points (APs) to 802.11n. “We need to increase capacity and bandwidth and add density of coverage,” says Keith Willse, senior network engineer, Kennedy Health System. “Previously we were using standard a/b/g technology.”

Kennedy Health is migrating to the 802.11n standard for numerous reasons. In the healthcare setting, there are many applications and devices competing for bandwidth on the network. “We are using location-based systems to track assets, increase productivity, and to improve patient care,” says Willse. “The greatest benefit to the location-based systems is ‘cost voidance’—meaning we won’t purchase new items because we can’t locate them. Now we will know where the assets are and what their status is.”

Kennedy Health is also looking to use its WLAN for biomedical applications as well as for guest access. “We are looking at temperature and medicine tracking, guest access for patients and families, and patient and data scheduling,” explains Willse. Wireless on Wheels carts are used throughout the hospitals to access this patient data and scheduling at any time. Kennedy will be increasing the number of these carts as the network is upgraded.


Taking a deeper look

When upgrading a WLAN, it is imperative to have visibility into the wireless spectrum to manage radio frequency (RF) interference. There are many sources of interference in a hospital environment—some are in-house and some are brought in with patients and visitors.

“It’s a very strenuous test environment with lots of interference,” says Willse. “We want to mitigate this interference before it becomes an issue.”

This interference comes not only from devices that are on the network, such as cell phones, laptops, and tablet computers, but also from devices such as microwaves, cordless phones, and anything with Bluetooth technology.

“Bluetooth is a noisy technology. It creates interference on the WLAN, but there is no way to record it,” says Willse. In addition, there is a lot of RF noise from the laboratories on site, but the sources can’t be identified with Kennedy Health’s existing technology.

Because the RF spectrum involves many constantly changing variables, having visibility into the spectrum and how it’s affecting the wireless network is important. As such, Willse and his team now use Cisco CleanAir technology to track these interference sources. CleanAir provides Willse with an “air quality” index which identifies problem areas and locates them in the context of AP, floor, building, and campus.

“CleanAir helps us locate, identify, and mitigate interference sources,” explains Willse. “With CleanAir, we see the noise floor, which tells us exactly where each interference source is.”

This includes the interference from Bluetooth devices that are used by the doctors and staff. “For medicine administration, the doctors use handheld Bluetooth scanners to track the meds,” explains Willse. “We can see how much these scanners deteriorate the air quality, we can find the source, and then we can turn down the Bluetooth on the devices so they don’t create as much interference.”

CleanAir also mitigates the effects of interference by automatically optimizing the WLAN for better reliability and performance.

“CleanAir makes changes based on air quality,” Willse explains. “It takes a sample of the RF, and then it dynamically changes the RF when interference is present.”

In addition, CleanAir can look at historic interference data and make changes based on that. “CleanAir takes statistics over time and only makes the RF changes on what it’s seen over that time,” explains Willse.

CleanAir has been able to locate, identify, and mitigate interference, saving time and money, as Kennedy doesn’t have the resources to spend hours looking for the interference sources.

“We would have had to plan and survey the buildings by walking every inch of the floor [without CleanAir],” explains Willse. Not only has CleanAir saved time and money up front, “This saves time with troubleshooting,” he adds.

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