What will happen when telecom providers upgrade to 5G?

Caring for older adults posed unique challenges in 2020 and has continued to do so in 2021, not just because of the pandemic. In addition to normal health care needs, care providers have had to adapt to protect older adults from the virus. With friends and family members unable to visit, nurses and caregivers have worked overtime to meet the needs of older patients and residents. They’ve had to create new ways for families to remain connected via technology or through windows. And one technology in particular has made it possible to monitor the health and safety of older adults at home or in care facilities remotely—mobile personal emergency response systems (mPERS). However, the transition to 5G mobile technologies could soon pose a threat to these devices.

mPERS can describe a variety of different types of devices from watches and pendants to small simple function phones. What makes these devices unique is they all feature an easy-to-use SOS button that an individual can press in case of emergency to reach a family member, caregiver, medical provider, or even an emergency call service that can respond to the event. Some mPERS devices also have fall detection capabilities that can automatically trigger a call for help. And thanks to cellular connectivity, these personal emergency response systems that used to be only a speaker box and pendant that could only function within the home are now mobile and able to provide protection anywhere. For now, that is.

As telecom providers prepare to upgrade networks to new 5G capabilities and remove 3G services, some of these devices may become obsolete. Many panic button devices were designed using 3G or even 2G and Enhanced Data GSM Evolution (EDGE) technologies because the data being transferred by the device are light and don’t require the higher speeds of a 4G network, let alone 5G. As networks are upgraded, 2G and 3G devices could lose coverage and become less reliable. This is because telecom companies will be trading out the 2G and 3G technologies on cell phone towers for faster 4G and 5G technologies. Panic buttons operating on 2G or 3G networks will not be compatible with the new network speeds and their functionality could experience drops in coverage in areas where 2G and 3G coverage no longer exists.

For example, Verizon eliminated its 3G networks at the end of 2020, and AT&T is working through a plan to sunset 3G by 2022. Ericsson, an information communication technology company that installs 5G technologies on cell phone towers, predicts that by 2023 20% of the world’s population will have 5G coverage. While the cellular upgrades will infinitely speed heavy data transfers such as streaming video, the problem that exists for the mPERS industry and end users is that 4G and 5G devices have yet to be widely introduced to the mass market.

Keeping Up With the Times
The basic functionality of panic button devices hasn’t required rapid advancement of the technology that powers their operation. This and other factors affecting the mPERS industry have resulted in a device drought and slow efforts to upgrade older 3G mPERS devices. Now, manufacturers are forced to catch up with changing networking standards in order to continue to provide the safety and peace-of-mind customers rely on from their devices.

Medical providers who recommend mPERS devices to their patients and adult care facilities that rely on them ensure the safety and well-being of residents need to know if the devices will become unreliable as network upgrades are made. This can be accomplished by contacting the device manufacturers or the companies providing monitoring services for the devices. If it’s discovered that devices are operating on 2G or 3G networks, it would be wise to upgrade the mPERS devices as soon as possible. Discuss options with service providers to turn in existing devices for 4G models.

For existing devices that are in use in facilities or patients’ homes, implementing a regular testing schedule to ensure the devices are operational and have coverage is imperative. Devices should be triggered weekly to ensure that SOS messages are being transmitted. This simple test would only take a few seconds and would quickly determine if backup safety measures need to be taken or if the panic buttons can be relied on. Users may find that mPERS devices being used in more rural areas will continue to have 2G or 3G coverage, while those in urban areas will lose coverage sooner. This is simply because of the tendency for telecom companies to upgrade towers in urban areas with dense populations and large business centers first.

Transitioning from 2G or 3G panic buttons to 4G devices could come with an added cost. But it’s an essential upgrade to ensure ongoing protection. Security companies and medical alert monitoring companies should be contacting customers to alert them if their 3G devices will soon become obsolete. Unfortunately, there are no options other than upgrading to a new device, but providers may be offering incentives to help transition customers, such as free months of monitoring coverage, for example. Knowing this, medical professionals can advise customers to ask coverage providers what incentives are available for an upgrade, and care facilities can know that they may have options for negotiation as well.

Markets and Markets predicts that North America will account for the largest medical alert system market share increases from 2020 to 2025. In addition, a 2020 research study by Parks Associates estimates more than 5 million consumers in the United States will own an mPERS device by 2024. America’s increasing aging population is only one factor that accounts for the growth of the mPERS market. The pandemic has highlighted and sped the adoption of another factor, telemedicine.

Recognizing Opportunities
While having to upgrade to 4G devices will present challenges for end users, medical professionals, monitoring companies, and device manufacturers, the transition will also create opportunities for improved care. More advanced mPERS devices that are in development and entering the market can do more than just monitor for falls, location, and place emergency SOS calls. These new devices also are capable of monitoring heart rate, ECG, temperature, and other vital signs that can support improved remote patient monitoring.

Imagine, for example, an older adult living facility where all residents have mPERS devices in their living quarters in case they need to call for emergency assistance. Upgrading to more advanced 4G mPERS devices will alter the care spectrum potential from reactive to proactive. Nurses and medical providers in the facilities will be able to do more than merely respond to a medical emergency after it has occurred; they will be able to detect whether a resident is experiencing health changes indicating that a more serious problem could be imminent. By being able to remotely monitor more aspects of residents’ health remotely, staff will be able to provide better care by knowing more.

The same is true for medical professionals caring for patients who live in their own homes, as well as visiting nursing services, and even family members. After a patient has had a heart attack or stroke, for example, a cardiologist could recommend that the patient use an mPERS device with heart monitoring capabilities to make it possible for the doctor to remotely monitor recovery. If a patient experiences irregular heart rhythms or other signs of a future problem, the doctor can schedule a telemedicine or office visit for a more in-depth checkup. The same is true for recovery following surgeries, falls, illness, or any other health condition an individual faces.

While the transition from 3G to 4G mPERS devices will present challenges, it’s also an opportunity to improve monitoring and care for the people who rely on these devices. The timeline for making upgrades will depend on what cellular provider a device relies on for coverage, where the device is being used, and the monitoring company’s plan for transitioning devices. Medical providers should ask patients whether they use mPERS devices and whether their monitoring companies have contacted them regarding an upgrade. They should also ensure patients know to ask about network connectivity issues if they are newly acquiring a device. For companies that use mPERS devices with patients who are part of a visiting nurse program or for residents in adult living facilities, the same recommendations apply. As the aging care industry grows, mPERS will play a crucial role, and these latest upgrades are just the beginning of the potential of these devices.

— Chris Holbert is the CEO of SecuraTrac. He’s served as a CEO, COO, and CIO for privately held and publicly traded companies. Prior to starting SecuraTrac in 2008, Holbert was the COO and CIO of LaunchPad Communications, served as the CIO for North American Scientific, Inc, and held senior consulting positions for Ernst & Young, LLP and American Management Systems, Inc.

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