April 6th, 2009 | Published in eHealth & Assisted Living
At last week’s G20 summit, the GSM Association assembled 24 of their operators to provide a petition requesting access to more spectrum. The reason was to allow them to make mobile broadband a key part of their country’s broadband plans. Whether or not they get their wish is still to be seen, but it sends a powerful message that they, as well as fixed line operators, can be part of the broadband future.
That’s important for them, as it places them far more firmly on their individual country’s roadmap towards a broadband future. In turn, that’s important to handset developers, who will see it as justification to include broadband related technologies and features. And it’s important to manufacturers of connected consumer devices that will extend the broadband reach beyond the handset. It gives further emphasis to Bluetooth’s claim to be the mainstream low power technology for low power healthcare devices. The reason is simple – an expansion of handsets supporting mobile broadband will mean a bigger critical mass of Bluetooth gateways. That’s a reality the Continua Health Alliance and health device designers needs to factor into their plans.
There are two important messages behind the political manoeuvring. One is the desire of the mobile operators to be part of the broadband future. The other is a realisation that they can start to be part of a mobile health solution that the world desperately needs. Both are close to the heart of the GSM Association, which is supporting these moves.
Mobile Internet was an early aspiration of the mobile industry. It started by shooting itself in the foot when it attempted to persuade users that WAP was an acceptable alternative to Internet Explorer on a PC. Not surprisingly, users disagreed. Since that debacle, the mobile operators have managed to claw back lost ground, but still feel that they are considered the poor cousin of wired broadband, despite the potential of current HSDPA and the future promise of LTE. They’re aware that unless they can persuade a generally technically illiterate legislature that they have a part to play, then they will miss out on the investment and opportunities of the “access to all” approach which governments around the world are rolling out. Hence their current ploy of increasing their profile at the premier meeting of world leaders.
There’s a growing acceptance that the world needs to do something about healthcare. The GSMA development fund is already doing some admirable work in helping and promoting mHealth in countries such as Mexico and Pakistan. Up until now, there’s been a reluctance in the “developed” world to embrace anything with the word “medical” in it, not least because it has the corporate lawyer tossing in their beds at night with bad dreams of litigation. However, operators are beginning to see that there are many, many less critical health and wellness applications where they can act as a trusted service provider. Trusted in the operator world equates to customer loyalty and ARPU, so mHealth is becoming a topic of interest once more.
One of the problems in deploying health and wellness applications is the need to have consumer health devices that will connect to a mobile phone and use then that to send user data back to a monitoring application. At present it’s a fairly specialised market, although companies like Polar are making convincing plays in the sports arena. To break through from specialised to mass market, it needs standards that are supported both by handsets and also by consumer health and wellness devices.
The Continua Health Alliance has been putting together a network of standards, drawing on the IEEE for standardised data formats and wired and wireless standards groups to define the connectivity over which the data is transported. Their first choice of wireless standard is Bluetooth, which already exists in the majority of mobile phones and which is capable of transmitting significant amounts of data.
Now the hunt is on for a complementary wireless standard that can cope with very low power health devices, capable of running on coin cells for months or years. We need that for applications such as assisted living products, or body worn sensors. There are a number of potential candidates, all of which have levels of technical merit. What is possibly even more important is which of these has something to talk to. Bluetooth low energy is a new Bluetooth standard that can tick all of the technical boxes, but which has an enormous advantage – it will be able to talk to the Bluetooth chips that will exist within the next generation of mobile phones.
The work of the GSM Association and their group of 24 operators will increase the recognition that mobile phones are going to play an important part in the global broadband future. It will result in a critical mass of billions of broadband capable mobile phones (which will contain Bluetooth low energy technology). That makes the technology decision for consumer healthcare product manufacturers – they are only going to want to produce devices that have something to connect to. If they take any other approach they’re going to have to provide a wireless dongle with each of their products, making them uncompetitive compared to a Bluetooth one, where the phone gives the local connectivity for free.
That ought to make the decision for the Continua Health Alliance. Whatever anyone else thinks, the standard that we are going to end up with is the one that the top half dozen phone manufacturers include in their handsets. Otherwise Continua runs the risk of looking like the Esperanto teacher trying to persuade the world they should give up English in favour of their private, invented language.