How wireless networks can battle COVID-19

Wireless network devices maintain a connection by handing off from one cell tower to another. The data created should be used to fight coronavirus, say researchers.

Wireless telecommunications tower encircled by concentric, virtual rings.
Sasha85ru / Getty Images

Routinely collected cellphone-location data could be used to alert health official about crowded areas where novel coronavirus could spread rapidly, which they could then use to disperse people in order to lower the risk, according to researchers at Colorado State University.

Mobile phones maintain connections as their users move around by continually handing off from one cell tower to another. Analyzing logs of these handoffs is a way to gauge how many people are in an area, the researchers say, and that information could flag potential virus-spreading hotspots. “Crowded regions with actively moving people are susceptible to spreading the disease,” the team say in an abstract of their paper in IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology.

“Our findings could help risk managers with planning and mitigation,” says Edwin Chong, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and interim department head at the school in an article on the university’s website.

The data that would be used doesn’t identify individuals who own the phones, which should alleviate privacy concerns, he says. “All we have to do is perform the measurements using anonymous data that is already being collected for other reasons. We are not tracking individuals,” he says

Cellphone applications that have been developed to trace near encounters between individuals are different. They necessarily gather personal information so health officials can determine who might have come in proximity with an infected person. The goal is to alert those who have had such encounters so they can quarantine themselves for 14 days to prevent them from potentially spreading the virus further. But that is quite different from the information gathered by cell-tower engineering logs.

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