Fierce Q&A: Deloitte's Craig Wigginton on threats to mHealth advances

The United States' position as the leader in global mobile technology isn't assured, as other countries invest heavily in building out 4G infrastructure, according to a new report from Deloitte.

At the same time, use of mobile broadband is soaring, not just in consumer devices and applications, but also within the enterprise and government. The consultancy is warning that the United States faces a spectrum shortfall greater than 50 percent of current supply by 2014 unless immediate action is taken to remedy the imbalance between supply and demand.

The report points to mobile health as one of the industry sectors that could be stymied unless more spectrum is freed up to support increased investment in next-generation wireless networks. The Federal Communications Commission took a first step in that direction on Friday by approving a plan to reclaim public airwaves from broadcast television to be auctioned off, the New York Times reports.

FierceMobileHealthcare spoke with Craig Wigginton (right), Deloitte's U.S. telecommunications sector leader, about the report and the implications for mhealth.

FierceMobileHealthcare: Tell me about the overall spectrum shortage outlined in the report.

Wigginton: Even with the technological advancements we see out there in the wireless environment--the move to 4G, for instance, which allows the bandwidth to be used in a more efficient manner--there still needs to be some focus ASAP where the supply and demand aren't necessarily going to be in a favorable position. We've got a lot of great momentum in the U.S. and with the mobile ecosystem overall. Frankly, we'd hate to see that momentum get lost.

This isn't just about bragging rights from the U.S. perspective, this is real economic substance. There are real material dollars, real material jobs at stake here. We're estimating there's going to be between 371,000 and 771,000 new jobs created with the mobile ecosystem due to the implementation of 4G, and  $73 billion to $151 billion in GDP growth through 2016. It's real, and it's really big numbers.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Having bandwidth issues is actually a good problem to have. There was no way of projecting this even a decade ago. We wouldn't be in this position if the convergence of broadband, devices and apps weren't being fueled for growth. So our report is on how do we focus on it and how do we focus now on what needs to be done.

FMHC: What are the implications for mobile health?

Wigginton: In healthcare in particular, we're really on the edge of a groundswell of growth. Monitoring can be an extremely relevant and profitable opportunity. There's home monitoring, continuous monitoring, records handling, storage, rural access. This is being fueled through wireless and the growth of tablets and smartphones. And that's just the start--I see other devices on the periphery. That's all a far cry from the beepers doctors used years ago. Mobile is a great transformational area. The savings, benefits, efficiencies are in the hundreds of billions. And reliable, secure bandwidth, good speeds--that's paramount.

Some of the needs are high uses of bandwidth--connecting patients, connecting providers, connecting medical institutions, connecting researchers--the data centers for storage. A lot of the medical records are high resolution. You can see the opportunities for video streaming coming down the pike--real-time evaluations and more tailored and relevant medical training. At the end of the day, all these things are bandwidth heavy, which is one of the momentum drivers for the need for freeing up some spectrum.

FMHC: Would a spectrum shortage affect existing services or only limit future innovation?

Wigginton: Even with a shortage of bandwidth, the core services will be OK. But what we really lose out on is the strong innovation culture that we've developed in the U.S. We risk losing some of that economic advantage with GDP and jobs, not necessarily core jobs, but brain drain. If there's no innovative culture, especially in areas like healthcare, you risk losing the academic types, the researchers, the startup culture, students--both in the U.S. currently and those that would be drawn here. We could lose those to other countries that have more capacity and bandwidth to really fuel the innovation.

FMHC: Was the FCC's action a step in the right direction?

Wigginton: The FCC on Friday ruled that it will go ahead with focusing on clearing up the spectrum dedicated for television use today. And that spectrum is a big tranche that they're looking at freeing up, probably the single biggest tranche that we see as available on the horizon. So the ruling that came out on Friday at least is positive momentum.

FMHC: The report talks about opportunities for spectrum sharing. The spectrum for medical body area networks will be shared with commercial test pilots, for instance. Are there other opportunities for that within healthcare?

Wigginton: There are challenges with sharing spectrum. Who are you sharing it with? What are the uses? And what are the conflicts? Is it just frequency or bandwidth usage? We put some information in the report about how to maximize the available spectrum beyond just allocating more. For instance, if you bring down the cell site, the tower, you can multiply that out into new small cell regions and allow for a multiplication of the usage. There's things you can do with frequency and then there are other spectrum-sharing techniques.

FMHC: Are there things healthcare leaders should be doing about this?

Wigginton: Understand what your mobile strategy is and then think through whether there are any extraordinary risks out there that need to be assessed. In healthcare the main thing is privacy and dedication. You've got to make sure you have the right bandwidth to serve your needs and, of course, the reliability are the biggest keys. You also have to make sure you have the right amount of spectrum to fuel innovation and growth.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.