VA Moves to Expand Its 5G Experimentation 


One of the agency’s senior innovators shed light on what’s to come—and how existing 5G pursuits have paid off in the pandemic. 

The Veterans Affairs Department’s ongoing, strategic experimentation with 5G is set to extend beyond the Palo Alto-based hospital where it began 9 months ago—and the agency has already started to consider other medical facilities in its system to deploy the next-generation technology.

Dr. Ryan Vega, the executive director of the Veterans Health Administration’s Innovation Ecosystem said Wednesday that a letter of intent was recently signed to begin the expansion of VA’s 5G-enabling efforts. 

“I think the next decade is going to be incredibly exciting,” he told Nextgov during a webcast. 

Vega offered some details about plans for the future sites, which VA confirmed will include a VA facility in Lake Nona, Florida, another in Seattle, and a further campuswide expansion of the initial work in Palo Alto, to start. Through an initiative deemed Project Convergence, that location—VA’s Palo Alto Healthcare System—became its first 5G-boosted hospital, and one of the first on the planet, in February, the last month of pre-pandemic normalcy in America. 

“The world looks very different from when we made the first announcement,” Vega reflected. 

At the time, the agency launched partnerships that he noted were somewhat “unconventional” for the government, to ultimately advance what Vega called “the practicality of innovations and solutions around and leveraging a 5G network.” VA linked up with three companies—Verizon, Microsoft and Medivis—hoping to reach short term gains exploring the technology, but with sights ultimately set on potentially establishing an infrastructure to use and scale 5G applications to drive forward veteran care. 

5G holds the promise of high speed, low latency internet connections that agency officials believe could radically revolutionize how VA provides care.

“What we really wanted to do was to better understand how to actualize and operationalize that sort of technology, and in doing so, really learn how to augment some of the components that make 5G unique,” Vega said. Offering examples of those features he pointed to network slicing and optimization. He said it notably enables officials to fine tune the network towards a specific application—“versus just broadcasting the signal more broadly and saying, ‘we want the same tuning towards somebody downloading a movie, as we do towards our surgeons in the operating theatre using this advanced computer spatial technology.’”

The 5G network backbone of Project Convergence comes from Verizon. It supports Microsoft’s HoloLens information delivery platform and headset, which is used with imaging software from Medivis that officials can tap to transform complex health information into interactive 3D holograms, models and overlays. 

Vega added that Medivis’ solution is a Food and Drug Administration-cleared surgical navigation system.

“Just to put this into context of what this means—imagine being a surgeon in the operating room, and you see the patient lying on the table, and you're wearing the Microsoft HoloLens, or any other glasses that sort of can project, an augmented reality image,” Vega explained. “You can actually take a patient's MRI or CT scan, and place it over the patient and actually see below the surface before you make any incision.”

This can be particularly helpful in cases where there are complications deeper below the surface in a patient’s body, he noted. Vega added that officials have learned a lot more about what 5G can offer—particularly when health care systems are under serious strains sparked by an unexpected pandemic. Not long after COVID-19 hit, the network enabled health care professionals involved to extend broadband connectivity into different parts of the hospital that were set up as COVID-specific units for patients who had the novel coronavirus, as well as where patients who were not infected were separately located.

“So having that signal and the ability to sort of optimize that signal allowed us to be able to connect telemetry monitoring devices, and actually stand up a new part of the hospital,” he said.

Now, the agency is setting sights on the next facilities to further push and assess 5G’s potential, and officials recently signed a letter of intent to start moving forward. 

“The first site where we will expand some of the 5G work is going to be in Orlando, in the Lake Nona Medical City,” Vega explained. It’s a place where he noted “we’re seeing an explosion of innovation.” 

Lake Nona is adjacent to the Orlando International Airport and spans only 17 square miles of land. The area is leveraging modernization-focused investments and is called on its site “a modern mecca for technology, innovation, and community.” 

Verizon unveiled plans Tuesday to introduce its 5G ultra wideband service into an Innovation Hub in the “smart community” and offer people the opportunity to explore “how 5G can enhance connected healthcare and technology, autonomous mobility, smart communities, health and wellness, education, retail and sports.” Vega added that VA’s National Simulation Center—the agency’s operational hub that coordinates all national VHA clinical simulation activities—and other academic affiliates are also in Lake Nona. The deployment will be there, at VHA SimLearn, VA confirmed.

“So, the idea is to utilize VA’s National Simulation Center to really optimize the incorporation of emerging health technology into clinical practice,” Vega said. “And you'll see sort of the 5G infrastructure as sort of a twinning between Verizon’s Innovation Hub and in our Lake Nona hub.”

That effort is already underway, and VA’s team is also looking to move efforts into the Puget Sound VA Medical Center in Seattle, as well. The agency intends to have more concrete plans in place by the start of next year.

“Then, there are a few other sites that are targeted for later, in [fiscal year] ‘22,” he said.