Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wi-Fi in Assisted Living: It’s all about Operations Infrastructure

As the baby boom generation continues to age, the demand for assisted living is going to continue to grow dramatically.   Tech-savvy seniors living in these facilities will expect, at least, the same quality of wireless Internet access that they had at home.   To be competitive, assisted living facilities will need to keep up their Wi-Fi infrastructure to attract residents.

That said, it’s hard to justify large capital expenditures on Wi-Fi, just so Millie can Skype with her grandkids.

In reality, however, resident Internet access is actually of only secondary or even tertiary importance.  The true power of Wi-Fi in assisted living facilities is the ability for the staff to access electronic patient records securely and use an ever-growing array of wireless sensors to monitor residents and improve both operational efficiencies and maintain the health and safety of the residents.  The Wi-Fi capital investment is actually one of infrastructure, as Wi-Fi is a critical component to the daily operations of the facility.

The emerging Internet of Things (IoT) is creating a network of wireless-enabled wearable and other sensing devices to collect data, report on abnormalities, and even make appropriate adjustments.   Some of these devices, like the FitBit, Nest thermostat, and Apple Watch, are already on the market.   But while these may still be considered in the realm of high-tech toys, the real applications will not just be life-enhancing, but life-sustaining.  Consider the following representative applications for continuous, real-time measurements:

  • Wearable sensors: 
    • Vital signs, including blood pressure, pulse rate, and temperature
    • Orientation:  “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” without pushing a button
    • Location:  Where are your residents within your facility?  Absolutely essential for residents suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia
  • Room sensors and actuators:
    • Pressure sensors in the bed and other furniture:  When a resident gets up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, do they get back to bed in a reasonable amount of time?
    • Environmental sensors measuring and adjusting room temperature and humidity
    • Motion:  Has anyone been in to provide meals or check on the resident?
    • Lighting and Electrical Usage:  Is the resident keeping to their standard living pattern?  Can lights / televisions / etc. be turned off to save electricity?
    • Safety:  Heat, smoke, and carbon monoxide detection
  • Facility sensors and actuators:
    • Location:  Always know where drug carts, medical devices, and other facility assets are located
    • Security:  Motion sensors, access control, video surveillance
    • Safety:  Heat, smoke, and carbon monoxide detection
    • Lighting and Electrical Usage:  Are the commercial kitchen facilities wasting energy due to poor freezer seals, high-energy devices being left on, etc.
    • Lighting and Electrical Control:   Turn off lights, televisions, and the like in unused common areas.

Figure 1:  Concept of the Wireless Internet of Things to monitor patients and assisted living residents.

To take full advantage of these applications, a properly designed and functioning Wi-Fi system is essential.   If your Wi-Fi doesn’t work properly, your critical applications won’t work effectively.   Infrastructure Wi-Fi™ from WIoT Solutions offers a holistic approach to making sure that the Wi-Fi you implement will meet all of your operational needs.

First and foremost, every Wi-Fi deployment needs to be tailored to the specific layout, building materials, and constraints of a facility.  This is required to ensure proper coverage on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands by selecting the correct AP locations, channel, and transmit power settings.   In a facility serving tens or even hundreds of residents, such a system needs to be engineered and optimized for the space, requiring qualified and knowledgeable Wi-Fi engineers and installers.  The access points should also be centrally managed from either an on-site controller or a cloud-based application, so that proper functionality and usage statistics can be monitored and changes can be rolled out consistently and universally.  The figures below show a predictive model of Wi-Fi coverage in an assisted living facility for both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, using EnGenius Neutron EWS360AP 802.11ac dual-band centrally-managed access points.  

Figure 2:  AP positions and expected coverage from predictive modeling (2.4 GHz).

Figure 3:  AP positions and expected coverage from predictive modeling (5 GHz).

Long gone are the days where you can simply go to your local electronics superstore, buy a box for $50, slap it on the wall, and call it usable Wi-Fi.   

Compared to the 5 GHz band, the 2.4 GHz band has comparatively low throughput and is subject to more external sources of interference, though also travels further and attenuates less rapidly.   This is also the band preferred by IoT devices, and will likely remain so for many years to come.  The 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi technology is older, and therefore cheaper, for IoT device manufacturers to incorporate.   Furthermore, the data requirements per device are miniscule:  most IoT devices only need to report small amounts of data on a periodic scale of minutes.   While a large number of IoT devices can start to add up to significant data consumption, it is more likely for an AP to reach its simultaneous connection limits before the trickle of IoT data becomes a torrential flood.

Of course, this assumes that the IoT devices are not competing for wireless resources with high data applications, such as video conferencing on Skype or accessing patient medical records on an employee’s tablet.  Fortunately, most data devices are already capable of operating on either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands.  Enterprise APs include band steering to encourage connections on 5 GHz, which utilizes wider channels and is subject to less external interference than the 2.4 GHz band. 

In terms of access, a typical assisted living facility is likely to have at least three SSIDs / VLANs per band:

  • Staff:   This is the network for facility-owned computing devices, such as tablets and laptops, for both resident management and facility operations.   To meet HIPAA-compliance, the network incorporates WPA2 Enterprise security with a central RADIUS or Active Directory server managing the users and devices that can log onto this network.
  • Resident / Visitor:   This is the network for residents of the facility, their guests, and any personal devices brought in by staff members.   The SSID should be unencrypted, to allow for easy access to the network.   However, client devices should be fully isolated from one another, so that they can only get Internet access and not access to each other.  The use of a (well-designed) captive portal for guests, as well as bandwidth limitations per device to prevent abuse, is also of key importance.
  • Infrastructure:  This is the network for the array of IoT sensors and actuators used to monitor residents and measure / control the environment.  As much of the data will be patient-specific and medical in nature, HIPAA-compliance also applies, necessitating the use of WPA2 Personal security to prevent unauthorized access.   Client device isolation is also required, with appropriate exceptions for the on-site servers or monitoring computers that need on-site real-time access to the data.

There may also be additional VLANs / SSIDs required for additional applications, such as for video surveillance, access control, and / or Voice over IP.  

In addition to the Wi-Fi, an appropriate supporting Information Technology infrastructure is required, incorporating network security and firewalls, Active Directory / RADIUS servers, video surveillance, access control, Voice over IP, and cloud-based backup of mission critical data.  

I specialize in designing and troubleshooting these types of Wi-Fi deployments.  If you’d like more information, please respond to this blog, contact me on Twitter (@EmperorWiFi), or email me at

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