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Mesh to the Bedside

When the Royal Ottawa Hospital began construction almost two years ago on its new main building and Institute of Mental Research, George Langill, then-CEO of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, the hospital's parent company, made a far-reaching and potentially risky decision: In its new facility, scheduled to open late this year, the hospital would go entirely wireless.

The result will be the first hospital in Canada to base all of its telecommunications, including voice and data, on a wireless mesh network. Provided by Nortel Networks Ltd. , in partnership with ameriTel Consulting, the network will cover all five buildings on the Ottawa campus and supply more than 1,000 doctors, researchers, and hospital staff with high-speed connectivity wherever they are on the grounds.

Based on technology that will be covered by the emerging IEEE 802.11s standard for wireless mesh networks, the Royal Ottawa network epitomizes a growing trend in the mesh deployments: Increasingly they are being built, not only for citywide public access, but as enterprise systems.

“Implementing a wireless solution will give our doctors and staff more flexibility in the way they care for patients," said Bruce Swan, Langill's successor as Royal Ottawa Health Care Group CEO, in a statement. "Ultimately, these new telemedicine services and tools will allow clinicians to not only increase productivity but also improve patient care by delivering critical information to the bedside.”

At the moment, the hospital's new network is undergoing extensive testing in the current facility, which will be demolished when doctors, staff, and patients move into the new building late this year. This sort of wholesale shift to wireless would not have been possible as little as eight months ago, points out Pierre Martinelli, the hospital's acting information management director and project manager for the wireless build-out.

"That's why we developed this 'wireless lab' environment in the old building, to make sure that everything works fine and to identify problems way ahead of time and find solutions," explains Martinelli. The testing program started with basic performance baselines, to make sure the network can achieve the promised speeds and reliability levels, and has since moved on to verifying all the various applications in use throughout the hospital and its research division, to make sure they run smoothly over the new network. The final stage will be testing all the devices and systems, from desktop PCs to physicians' PDAs. "It's really a huge undertaking on the testing side lot to verify that this will all work from the day we move into the new hospital," Martinelli adds.

The Ottawa project is also reflective of the untroubled progress of the 802.11s standard toward ratification by the IEEE. At this time last year it seemed that two competing formulations -- one supported by the Wi-Mesh Alliance, headed by Nortel, and the other by the SEEMesh Alliance, led by an array of industry powers that includes Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) -- would go head-to-head to become the winning standard.

This face-off had the makings of yet another contentious and Byzantine standards fight, until the two groups decided to work together. (See 802.11g: Radio On.)

A series of meetings, alternating between Nortel's Ottawa headquarters and the Santa Clara base of Intel, resulted in a merging of the two proposals. Last week, three months ahead of schedule, the joint proposal was approved by the 802.11s task force. Final approval could come next year.

The interlocking features of the two proposals made the smooth collaboration possible, says Nortel director of strategic standards Bilel Jamoussi.

"The SEEMesh proposal really came from a focus on small residential mesh network deployments," Jamoussi explains. "Ours came from a focus on scaleable, wide-area deployments. Those two building blocks were not in direct conflict, but complementary in nature, and that helped move the process forward rapidly."

Benefiting will be the staff and patients of the Royal Ottawa Hospital, not to mention a growing number of enterprises in other industries. The increasing adoption of mesh networks for enterprise purposes -- particularly in campus environments such as hospitals, universities, and large corporations -- is emblematic of what Carlton O'Neal, the VP of marketing at wireless network provider Alvarion Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: ALVR), calls the "slippery slope" phenomenon: Many enterprises or municipalities that invest in mesh for specific operational needs quickly find that they enable a broad range of mobile solutions, increased productivity, and lower telecommunications costs. (See KC Green Lights Wireless.)

And the rapid progress of wireless mesh standards means that 802.11 will remain a formidable competitor to WiMax broadband networks, when they become reality.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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