Britain was the only non-Nordic country among the top five in a recent "e-readiness" survey, a whisker behind Denmark in first place, and a big reason for the high ranking was the UK's competitive broadband market. But the telecoms industry did not achieve this on its own. Britain's Nordic class of broadband network is taking shape thanks to some Nordic-style state nurturing of networks to serve schools, hospitals and local authorities.
National plans for a broadband infrastructure led by the public sector date from November 2002, when Tony Blair, in a speech at the London "e-summit", announced targets of connecting schools and hospitals as well as unspecified government agencies to broadband by 2006. But several local authorities were already pioneering the concept, in most cases driven by the lack of interest by telecommunications companies. In fact, several parts of the UK would have no broadband if it weren't for initiatives by their councils.
One pioneer was DurhamNet, which grew out of a scheme by Derwentside District Council. It began as a network to connect council offices, schools and libraries, then spread to community centres and local businesses. An NHS trust uses the network to send huge images from MRI scanners around its different sites. "We had massive market failure," says Alan Hodgson, Durham's director of e-government services. "The telcos weren't interested; they were looking for instant return on investment. We had to do it."
Even in Cambridgeshire, with its booming "Silicon Fen", the local authority is playing a vital role. The Cambridgeshire Community Network, described as the UK's most inclusive broadband community network, will link more than 400 council buildings, including schools and libraries, with community access points ranging from post offices to pubs.
Councils can afford to get into such ventures by combining budgets for educational IT with central funding for e-government. (Derwentside also picked up regeneration funding and showed an entrepreneurial flair in selling network capacity to other organisations.) Also, new networking technology such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony can help councils cut phone bills between their different buildings.
However, the main reason such networks bring broadband to areas that would not normally be economically viable is that they aggregate demand. For telecoms firms, a county council is worth doing business with, even if its schools and libraries are scattered through areas that wouldn't otherwise be attractive to them.
Aggregation is now the cornerstone of central government's broadband policy. The e-envoy, Andrew Pinder, has long been urging government departments and agencies to pool their needs for networking, rather than procuring stand-alone systems. Last summer, the government responded by creating "aggregation bodies" in each of the nine English regions. These would buy capacity for education, the NHS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Few people outside the regional offices took much notice.
In March this year, however, the project moved up a gear, when Stephen Timms, e-commerce minister at the Department for Trade and Industry, awarded 17 telecoms firms "framework contracts" to supply broadband services. Aggregation bodies, now named Adits, would be able to order capacity from the 17 firms on behalf of public sector organisations in their areas. The idea is that they aggregate demand from all public sector agencies, including local authorities and post offices, and take the requirement to the framework suppliers and order "bundles" of services by a reverse auction (a procurement method rapidly coming into vogue for commodity purchases of IT). Businesses and householders would then be able to piggy-back on the investment by taking advantage of broadband-equipped exchanges.
Timms said that the contracts would be "a powerful mechanism for competitive interest" and "a vital contribution to reaching our target of having the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 and for having 100 per cent availability by the end of 2005".
Although the framework contracts cover all parts of the public sector, throughout the UK the pace of procurement has been driven by one "anchor tenant", the NHS in England. Broadband connectivity is crucial to the £6bn programme to modernise IT in the health service, being pushed forward by a central team led by Britain's highest-paid civil servant, Richard Granger. The first fruits of the new system - e-booking of hospital appointments from GP surgeries - are due this summer.
The system depends on a secure, reliable, national IT network capable of handling X-ray images and other bandwidth-hungry parts of multimedia electronic medical records. The "spine", being developed by BT, will make these available to every NHS desktop - and patients themselves via the internet - by 2010. Duncan McNeil, director of the national IT programme's design and technology office, says that the spine will have an availability of better than 99.8 per cent and a maximum response time of 0.2 seconds within the system itself, though some transactions, such as electronic booking, will take several seconds.
To give the project a chance of success, the NHS had to replace a previous network, NHSnet. This was created under contracts signed in the mid-1990s with BT and Cable & Wireless, which notionally provided a dedicated network used mainly for administrative data. (Originally, NHSnet was very much a child of the "internal market" created by the Major government's reforms of the health service.)
The spine will run on a new NHS broadband network, known as N3. It, too, is being assembled by BT under a contract signed early this year for £530m. Unlike with its predecessor, which was an end-to-end BT affair, the contractor is required to buy capacity from cables and exchanges installed by firms picked through the aggregation programme. In a first for joined-up government, the NHS programme abandoned the health service's cherished administrative boundaries to set up IT boundaries that coincide with the English regions. If any of the regions drag their feet in ordering aggregated capacity, a national Adit can step in.
Although the NHS contract suggests that regional aggregation will take off, there are still question marks over how it will work in practice. One uncertainty concerns integration with existing networks, especially at the county level, which most authorities see as the logical unit for connecting libraries and schools.
County-led broadband initiatives are still very much alive. Last month, for example, the Hertfordshire Grid for Learning, one of the first in England, contracted its existing supplier, NTL, to connect 567 schools and other establishments to a managed broadband network in a contract worth £22.6m over five years. The new contract involves putting 313 primary and nursery schools on 2Mbps networks by March 2005 and upgrading the county's 85 secondary schools to 10Mbps by March 2006. NTL says that the extra bandwidth will allow remote teaching by videoconference and multimedia presentations at school assemblies. The contract includes software to protect students from unsavoury websites; teachers can monitor all internet use.
John Warwick, a deputy head at a Hertfordshire school, says that high-speed internet access is "transforming the way we teach. We have already implemented videoconferencing, enabling pupils to communicate with other schools in Hertfordshire and across the country as well as organisations such as museums and art galleries in London. We are currently looking at a range of new projects, such as online broadcasting, which simply wouldn't be possible without broadband."
While state-led broadband investment is certainly taking off in Britain, there are two big dangers ahead. First, not everyone is joining the broadband aggregation party. Noticeable wallflowers include criminal justice agencies, which have their own national network supplied by Cable & Wireless. Many local authorities with modern "intranets" see no advantage in sharing their infrastructure, especially shire counties that are sceptical of the whole regional agenda. The same goes for central government bodies such as the Department for Work and Pensions, which have access to the Government Secure Intranet supplied by Energis.
Second, there is a temptation to see broadband as an end in itself. In January, the third annual report of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, set up by the government to advise on broadband strategy, warned that public agencies must take a greater lead in promoting not just broadband connectivity but broadband use. It warns that the £1bn committed by the Prime Minister to connecting education and health services will not by itself transform services. Many public services do not have an embedded culture of IT use - for instance, the health service still relies heavily on paper-based processes. The report stresses that users must be involved: "Employees need to be motivated to use and exploit the technology once it is put in place."
The overall message is that even the most sophisticated broadband network is just a conduit. The important thing is not the hardware, not even the electronic data that comes across it, but the way that can be used to improve public services. Easy to say, not so easy to do.