20 February 2004 The NHS has awarded a £530 million contract to telecoms giant BT to provide and manage a broadband network that will eventually expand to include the entire public sector.
The deal consolidates BT’s position as one of the big winners of the NHS IT modernisation programme, netting a third of the £6 billion worth of contracts available.
But BT will not provide the entire broadband service by itself. Instead, it will integrate the efforts of the Regional Aggregation Bodies, a set of competing national and local telecoms companies. NHS IT director Richard Granger said that this set-up would save the organisation £900 million over the seven years of the contract, two-thirds of the cost of existing contracts.
The programme, called the New National Network (N3), is the first major public-sector broadband network. It is intended to improve on the speed of the former ‘NHSnet’, enabling rapid transfer of visual data such as X-rays. It is also a crucial element in delivering the new services provided by the National Programme for IT.
The 10,000 NHS organisations currently linked will be increased to the full quota of 18,000. Typical hospitals’ bandwidth will rise from 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 100Mbps, and GP surgeries’ from 256 Kilobits per second (Kbps) to between 512Kbps and 1Mbps. The network will also support voice over IP calls, enabling savings on phone bills.
N3 will also have wider implications beyond the NHS. It is the largest stakeholder in the cross-governmental Broadband Aggregation Project, which will increase national broadband coverage by aggregating all public sector demand.
E-commerce minister Stephen Timms said that the infrastructure created by such public sector investments will also be available to businesses, industry and residential customers, adding that areas previously considered too remote and uneconomic for broadband would “particularly benefit”.
Implementation of N3 will begin in April 2004.
Other aspects of the National Programme for Information Technology include creating an NHS Care Records Service to improve the sharing of consenting patients’ records across the NHS. This is intended to make it easier and faster for GPs and other primary care staff to book hospital appointments for patients, providing a system for electronic transmission of prescriptions.
The broadband deal is the last of the NHS IT contracts which were first advertised less than a year ago. BT has already won a £620 million contract to provide the core electronic patient record system and a £996 million deal to install and run the systems in London.