BT has announced that the N3 network has now been enhanced to carry phone calls using voice over internet protocol technology (VoIP).

The enhancement means that NHS trusts will now be able to make free IP phone calls using the N3 Local Gateway Service.

N3’s head of marketing, Michael Cole, told EHI: “From day one, trusts will see benefits, including free ‘on net’ calls to any compatible site on the NHS network and big savings on mobile calls, equating to up to 70% of the NHS’s usual telephone bill.”

N3 Local Gateway Service (LGS) provides an interface between a local telephone switch and the N3 Voice Services Central platform. The N3 LGS enables telephone calls to be placed over the N3 network (on-net) and access to the N3 fixed to mobile gateway.

A partnership with mobile operator O2 means that trusts will also be able to call mobile numbers at a subsidised rate. BT claim that around 70% of NHS phone calls are to mobile phone numbers at present.

Cole said: “We have been listening to what the NHS wants since beginning working with them and have designed a suite of services specifically for them. Trusts have wanted voice and data for a while, and so 18 months ago we started making Quality of Service arrangements and after nine months we developed the suite of services for the NHS market.”

In preparation for voice across N3, BT has deployed six-layer Quality of Service, a data management system which prioritises important data applications, voice and multimedia traffic. This gives the network the ability to handle the increasing demands it faces, and ensures that delay-sensitive services such as voice are given priority.

Trusts will be charged an initial set-up fee and will then pay ongoing rental charges after the deployment, but VoIP calls to other users of the service will be free.

Cole said: “The actual savings will depend on the caller profiles and the amount of expenditure in the trust on telephony. We expect savings of tens of millions in the NHS as a whole, but it really does depend on how the VoIP technology is used. It isn’t a new technology – many trusts are already using it, but now trusts can be confident of free calls to other N3 voice-enabled sites paying a minimal rental fee.”

As well as the N3 Local Gateway Service, BT is also offering a second service called N3 Hosted Voice.

Through this service N3 can effectively host a users’ IP telephony – managing the infrastructure and the billing process in total.

This will initially be targeted at small to medium sized users such as GP surgeries, where BT will effectively host the users’ IP telephony – managing the entire infrastructure and the billing process. BT has partnered with Cisco to provide hosted Cisco Unified IP Phones to trusts that take advantage of this service.

BT claims that NHS organisations in England can significantly reduce their communications costs by using the service.

Substantial savings will be made on communications by converging voice and data over a single network, BT says.

The technology has been piloted at five early adopter sites around the country and BT says the company is engaged with a number of trusts. So far, 35 trusts have confirmed they want the service.

Patrick O’Connell, managing director of BT Health, said: “N3 has been a real success story for patients and clinicians alike. In January this year we hit 18,000 connections two months ahead of schedule.

“Today, we’ve announced that the network is now voice-enabled. This opens up a raft of cost saving opportunities, technology innovations, efficiency enhancers and a roadmap for the future for organisations and the way they communicate.”

NHS Connecting for Health has funded the voice upgrade of the network, but trusts are responsible for paying additional set up and rental fees which will vary depending on the local NHS organisations existing infrastructure.

Full training is available in the services and BT says more products will be release in due course.

Cole said: “Trusts can have both of these new services. These are just the entry level solutions and there will be more. Using these, trusts can easily connect to the network and make free ‘on net’ calls and take advantage of the fixed mobile gateway. They can utilise existing infrastructure and equipment on site, or they can use N3 Hosted Voice and use specialised phones to host IP telephony geared to them.

“This is the start of a suite of new services to be developed on the NHS backbone and it is sure to bring great benefits to the healthcare environment.”