NHS picks BT for massive broadband network

A major upgrade of the National Health Service's IT network could help increase broadband availability, and BT has been charged with making the whole thing work

The National Health Service has awarded BT a major contract to run a nationwide broadband network that will link together 18,000 NHS sites. This represents the largest ever commitment to broadband from a public sector organisation. It will provide every hospital, primary care trust and general practice with a high-speed Internet connection.

The New National Network (N3) aims to bring significant benefits to the NHS, making vital patient data more easily available and letting doctors send high-resolution images such as X-rays quickly between sites. It will also support Voice over IP calls, which could help the NHS to cut its telephone bills.

In addition, N3 could help to increase the availability of high-speed Internet services across Britain.

Announcing the decision to give BT the role of creating and managing N3, health minister John Hutton said that the network would assist the process of modernising the NHS. "The New National Network will play a crucial role in the day-to-day business of the NHS, which currently exchanges millions of items of electronic data every day. For NHS doctors, it will mean they can be confident that key patient data will be available securely and reliably at the touch of a button," said Hutton in a statement.

The seven-year contract will be worth around £530m to BT, but it is likely that many other telcoms companies will also benefit. BT will not be providing all the broadband connections itself -- instead, it must buy services from a range of providers and integrate them into N3.

"This will deliver substantial cost savings -- saving the NHS up to £900m over seven years compared to the cost of procuring the same capacity through the existing NHSnet contracts. Frontline NHS staff will begin to see improvements in connectivity later this year," explained Richard Granger, the director general of NHS IT.

Some of the NHS units that will be broadband-enabled under N3 are sited in rural areas where broadband isn't currently available. According to e-commerce minister Stephen Timms, this means that telcos who contribute to N3 may have to increase the range of their high-speed networks -- helping to close Britain's broadband divide.

"Areas previously considered too remote and uneconomic for broadband will particularly benefit. Investments by the broadband supply industry to meet public sector needs will provide infrastructure, which is also available to businesses, industry and residential customers and will underpin the productivity benefits that a fully Broadband Britain will bring," Timms said.

Under the existing NHSnet contract, only 10,000 NHS sites have a broadband connection. With N3, these sites will get a much faster connection.

GP surgeries typically have a 256Kbps connection, but with N3 this will rise to between 512Kbps and 1Mbps. A large hospital can expect to see its existing 2Mbps link replaced with one of 100Mbps, while community hospitals and primary care trusts will be upgraded from 2Mbps to 10Mbps.

BT has acknowledged that creating such a large network will be a big challenge, but insists it is up to the task.

"Our aim is to provide world-class networking services to the NHS. We will deliver the network by coordinating a strong alliance of technology providers," said Ben Verwaayen, chief executive of BT.