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New spectrum to improve health

6 May 08 23:44 GMT

More radio spectrum will need to be released to cater for breakthroughs in healthcare and transport, said Ofcom.

In a report focused on the future use of wireless, the regulator identified hundreds of new applications.

They include wireless devices which monitor health and radio frequency ID tags on food products that allow allergy sufferers to shop more safely.

Meanwhile sensors in cars could automatically inform emergency services in the event of a crash.

The report, entitled Tomorrow's Wireless World, was designed to give the regulator an insight into how wireless technologies will need to be regulated over the next 20 years.

It focused specifically on the health and transport sectors and both the relevant government departments were closely involved in the research.

While new spectrum will need to be released, Ofcom found that most of the applications it identified would rely on existing technologies such as wi-fi and mobile networks.

"We don't expect to see any new or completely different technology in the next 10 years," said Professor William Webb, Ofcom's head of research and development.

"Instead, existing technologies will be brought together to have real benefit to society. It will mean there is a need for more radio spectrum for healthcare and transport," he said.

There is already spectrum available for wi-fi and RFID (radio frequency identification) but the allocation may need to be increased as more services come online.

The EU is currently considering ring-fencing spectrum that could be used for intelligent road transport systems.

Ear tag

In the healthcare sector, Ofcom sees wireless sensors becoming ubiquitous in monitoring a range of conditions including diabetes, heart conditions and asthma.

Such sensors, either implanted in the body or worn, would be able to send medical information to home hubs or mobile phones via short-range wireless technologies such as Bluetooth.

A number of UK universities are researching such body sensors.

Imperial College in London is running five different clinical trials of its e-AR (ear-worn Activity Recognition) sensor and predicts widespread availability within six to nine months.

"Our motion sensors work in a similar way to the Wii and can measure the body's day-to-day activities," explained Professor Guang-Zhang Yang, research director of medical imaging and robotics at Imperial.

"The uptake of telemedicine so far has been limited but the aim is for it to disappear into the fabric of life. It is not only for those with a disease but can also be used for general wellbeing or to promote healthy lifestyles," he said.

Emergency alerts

Ofcom's report also looked at transport and ways in which new technologies can make travel faster, smarter and safer in the future.

Cars will increasingly "talk" to each other, with alerts or even automatic systems, warning cars to brake to avoid collisions.

Such systems could be fitted to vehicles by 2015, the regulator predicted.

It could see car manufacturers held responsible for accidents, thinks Prof Webb.

"There are issues around liability which could cause some hiccups in future. There will be test cases where manufacturers are held responsible," he said.

Other systems will provide congestion alerts and offer alternative routes to drivers.

The European Commission is currently discussing whether to mandate a system that uses wireless technology in cars to automatically alert the emergency services of an accident.

Ofcom predicts such in-car technology will be on the market by 2011.

"Such systems will typically save 10 minutes which should mean fewer deaths," said Prof Webb.

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