The roll-out plans for new NHS broadband network (N3) look to be in some disarray after the future of the regional bodies charged with aggregating public sector broadband purchasing, including that of the NHS – was thrown into uncertainty.

In February 2004 the Department of Health awarded a £530 million, seven-year contract with BT to deliver N3.  Under the contract BT was to act as an “integrator” and “aggregator" rather than directly providing broadband services.  

BT was to buy this broadband connectivity through Regional Aggregation Boards (RABs) set up by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in a move it was claimed would help cut costs and use public sector purchasing power to make broadband connections more widely available.

In February 2004 NHS IT director-general Richard Granger said: “Our innovative contract is radically different from previous deals for broadband services.  It will require BT to act as an integrator rather than providing broadband services themselves.  This means the integrator will purchase connections from a constantly updated set of national and local telecoms firms who have competed to provide the service at best value."

E-Health Insider has learned, however, that just £9m of aggregated broadband contracts that have passed through the RABs – the vehicles for aggregating public sector broadband demand – with only a fraction attributable to the N3 contract.

And last week the DTI announced, that it will cease funding the National Aggregation Board, and leave Regional Development Agencies to decide whether or not to continue funding RABs – a move likely to limit radically the role of regional aggregation in public sector broadband purchasing and, by implication, N3.

Already the indications are that RABs will only continue in parts of England.  EHI has learned from the DTI that at least three of the nine RABs in England will be disbanded – South West, South East and North West.

A DTI spokesperson told EHI that so far £9 million of broadband procurement had passed through the RABs but added very little of this had so far been attributable to N3 as the NHS programme was running late.

“The anticipated contract value through N3 has not transpired as there are delays to the NHS IT programme as a whole, so the contract value through N3 has not been at the anticipated values,” said the spokesperson.  “Little or any of the £9m contract value aggregated through the RABs has come through N3 aggregation."

The DTI decision may also impact on how BT will deliver broadband connections to 18,000 health service sites under the N3 programme.  With the future of the RABs now looking uncertain BT may find itself in pole position to directly deliver broadband services to the NHS rather than work through the RABs as an aggregator, and requiring it to buy broadband connectivity from rival suppliers.

Asked to comment on the impact of the DTI decision to cease funding the national aggregation body and leave funding of RABs to RDAs the national programme for IT said they did not fund RABs: “The NPfIT does not fund Regional Aggregation Boards, they are funded by Regional Development Agencies and therefore there is no impact on N3."