VA looks to boost healthcare services through wireless experiments

Daniel Mesimer, the director of network engineering at the VA, said the department has a multi-fold strategy for modernizing its networks, with a big emphasis o...

The Department of Veterans Affairs is experimenting with fifth-generation mobile networks at three medical centers, while also using 5G to boost connections at rural locations.

Daniel Mesimer, the director of network engineering at the VA, said the department has a multi-fold strategy for modernizing its networks, with a big emphasis on looking for alternative forms of transport.

“That’s where conversations around cellular 5G come into play,” he said. “We’re also exploring and expanding our footprint around software defined wide-area networks. We really see the marriage of those two providing some additional services and support for our clinicians, our service providers, and at the end of the day, for our veterans.”

In recent years, the VA has launched three 5G experiments at medical centers in Palo Alto, Seattle and Miami, respectively. Mesimer said the experiments are all in their early stages.

“We see that as a launching point for us to engage with our innovations teams to really explore what those use cases are and how we fold the 5G capabilities into the VA network infrastructure,” he said.

Eventually, the VA wants to combine the experimental 5G networks with the operational networks at each medical center to provider staff and patients with high-speed, low latency data connections. “They would experience a better application experience,” Mesimer said. “Faster access to the telehealth systems, easier access to some data sets and the data centers.”

He said the VA is currently working through challenges with combining the experimental 5G networks with the agency’s secure production network.

“There’s a bit of a methodical approach as we go through these things,” he said. “Tying back to the fact that today we have a distinct split between our test environments and our production environments, so that we can roll through test scenarios of the applications as well as their security impact before considering rolling them into production.”

In addition to exploring new applications like smart medical devices and augmented reality healthcare, the VA is also looking to use 5G to help boost connectivity in rural settings, where wireless connectivity is typically harder to find.

“We’re doing our best to provide modern telehealth services not only to our providers, but to the veterans in those areas,” Mesimer said. “The rural coverage has been an ongoing challenge.”

Recently, Mesimer said his team helped support site activations in rural California by combining 5G networks with software-defined wide area networks, using 5G as the wireless backhaul network.

“We did realize lower latency, we realized reduced jitter, we did see the increased bandwidth compared to its LTE and 4G counterparts, and that was very successful,” he said. “We did bump our knees a bit on some of the early adoption issues where some of the carrier networks are continuing to expand and support. We stubbed our toes a couple of times there. We found the need for some very distinct site surveys so that we can get antennas aligned correctly and items like that.”

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