• ZTE and China Telecom rapidly constructed a wireless network to transmit large images (CT scans), perform remote diagnoses and remotely connect medical professionals over a 5G network.
• The project establishes a model that could be used at other “pop-up” and established hospitals to combat COVID-19 and future viruses and help protect health care workers.
The telecom industry has hyped 5G technologies as the “be all and end all” for our networks moving forward (although 6G is now being incubated in board rooms across the globe). But, just how much of 5G is ready for prime time deployments? The COVID-19 global pandemic has resulted in a sudden and widespread explosion in the need to support millions of workers and students videoconferencing simultaneously from home, and has created an acute need to deal with ballooning medical services.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has not given the industry or the world any time to debate and test a blueprint for how to move forward; but we have seen examples in which 5G can help. When faced with the need to react “yesterday”, adding tried-and-true technologies like fiber to deliver much needed bandwidth require significant manpower, equipment, and most importantly time – all currently in short supply. Thus, demand is likely to increase deeply for wireless network solutions to address needs of telemedicine and other critical services needed to help cope with the current crisis – and quickly set the foundational elements for moving forward to address future crises post COVID-19.
The desire to instrument telemedicine is certainly not new, it began in the 3G era with leased lines configured (at great cost and complexity) between major medical research centers. The practicality continued to improve with 4G/LTE, which provided increased bandwidth, though still not matching fiber in capacity. 5G promises to take this a step further with higher capacity solutions (5G new radio, 5G mobile core, new IoT devices, analytics) that are all on an accelerated deployment cycle. For academic/large medical centers – 1,000 Mbps can enable real-time image transfer, continuous remote monitoring and makes possible use of HD video consultations.
But now with COVID-19 we are seeing 5G take on a new urgency. In the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, ZTE and China Telecom were able to establish 5G connectivity across 68 hospitals in 23 provinces including at Leishenshan hospital, a “pop-up” hospital built specifically to address COVID-19 patients in Wuhan after the outbreak. The good news is that much of 5G has actually been in the planning and testing cycle for some time, meaning that the capabilities needed to support telemedicine and other applications needing high throughput, low latency, and high reliability have been addressed in the standards bodies and are being implemented by network equipment manufactures and trialed/tested by the service providers.
The example noted above should give hope that operators and vendors will leverage the current state of the technology to provide further aid to conquering the spread of COVID-19 and enable healthcare professionals to more effectively treat those infected. The 5G network combines AI, robotics, and other technologies to support the indoor distribution of infectious disease rooms and reduce the risk of infection. The model noted above is being replicated in other locations in China. Cities such as New York are undergoing rapid expansion of hospital capacities by retrofitting buildings and building new ones to cope with the crisis. Operators and vendors should consider rapid deployment of 5G, as adopted by ZTE and China Mobile to support essential networking needs.