Wi-Fi: From the Stone Age to Star Trek

Some companies and industry sectors are finding the use of Wi-Fi to be a helpful way to leap ahead to cutting edge technology while skipping intermediary steps saving time and money.

Just ask Robert Israel, the CIO at the two John C. Lincoln hospitals in Phoenix, Ariz. Thanks to a Wi-Fi network he installed last year in one of the two hospitals, the CIO feels like he’s leapt forward several thousands of centuries — from using an over-head paging system to using voice-activated portable communicators that run off a wireless network.

“We were not quite in the stone age, but pretty close,” Israel remembers. “Now it’s like Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The rectangular communicators in question come from Vocera Communications Inc. hang on staff coats and are smaller than two-by-five inches. Linked by Wi-Fi, the wearable communicators are a quick, efficient way to locate any of Lincoln’s 1,400 staff, nurses and doctors.

“It’s like the communicator badges in Star Trek,” Israel says. “It gives us immediate access to people.”

Before installing the Vocera system, the hospital usually located staff through an overhead paging system, which couldn’t be used after 8 p.m. when patients needed quiet and couldn’t be heard in many parts of the hospital.

“When you stop to think about it, it absolutely makes sense,” says Bob Hafner, a research chief at Gartner Research. “Rather than paging a nurse and asking them to come back to the nurse’s station” to find out what the problem is, the Vocera badge allows a request to go directly to the nurse or doctor where ever they are in the hospital.

“We leapfrogged,” summarizes Israel. “It’s almost night and day. It was a very large step we took forward. The communications bottleneck has been eliminated.”

Of course, the Vocera is just one example of how to use Wi-Fi to power a leapfrog application. Any application that needs a network to run may benefit from the mobility offered by a wireless network.

“You can deploy anything you want on the (Wi-Fi) network,” says John Yunker, president and chief analyst at Byte Level Research in Escondido, Calif. “It enables a lot of creative applications.”

Some hospitals, for example, are beginning to use Wi-Fi as part of a new push to create digital patient records, leapfrogging from illegible scribblings on a clipboard that hangs off the foot of a patients bed to computerized, complete patient records that can be updated bedside from a Wi-Fi enable hand-held device.

Records are more easily accessed and accurate when constantly updated, and test results can be instantly sent from a lab to a Palm Pilot for bedside consultations.

At the Lincoln hospitals, Israel plans to use the Wi-Fi network he set up for the Vocera system to also power bed-side data entry through a system of handheld computers and bed-side PCs.

Companies in other sectors are having similar experiences, when a network installed for one leapfrog application can quickly become useful or indispensable for other applications as well.

In the airline industry, for example, some airlines are installing on-board Wi-Fi networks travelers can use with their laptops. In this case, Wi-Fi means leapfrogging from no on-board Internet connection to a high-speed connection.

For the airlines, the same Wi-Fi network can double as a system, for example, for automatically diagnosing and communicating maintenance needs to ground crews before a plane lands, Yunker says. This can save time and increase flight efficiency when repair crews can start working as soon as a plane pulls into its gate.

This year, Lufthansa was the first airline to use the Connexion by Boeing service to offer a commercial Wi-Fi network on flights. But about a half-dozen other airlines have already signed up to use the service, Yunker says.

In the hotel industry, many companies originally installed Wi-Fi as a amenity for business travelers with laptops but quickly found the Wi-Fi networks can also boost the efficiency of the engineering and housekeeping staffs. Again, going from walkie-talkies to portable, Wi-Fi enabled computers that offer a leapfrog in productivity gains.

“With walkie-talkies, everyone hears the conversation,” says Yunker. But a Wi-Fi-connected iPaq can more discretely inform an engineer about a maintenance need down the hall.

For mid-range hotels that didn’t install wired broadband connections for guests when those first became popular “to some extent have used Wi-Fi to leapfrog their competition. And you can do Wi-Fi for a fraction of the cost of wired connections.”