HSCN moves into the ‘doing’ phase

Interview: Michael Bowyer of Innopsis says procurements for connecting to the Health and Social Care Network are gathering steam, and that it provides ‘a beacon’ for the rest of the public sector

Implementation of the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) is going to be a gradual process, but we can expect a surge of activity among healthcare bodies to procure their connectivity services early next year, according to Michael Bowyer.

Michael BowyerHe is known as a flag waver for the project. As innovation and knowledge sharing director for Innopsis – the trade association for network and applications services providers – he was involved in its design as the replacement for the NHS N3 broadband network.

Now he is pressing the case for it to provide an example for other parts of the public sector to follow.

“We’re now seriously moving into the doing, not talking, phase,” he says. “It’s very pleasing to see the enthusiasm on the authorities’ side about getting engagement with suppliers.”

A crucial point for the HSCN was reached with the recent delivery of the Peering Exchange, described as the “super switch” for all of the customer network service providers (CN-SPs) to the HSCN. It was delivered on schedule by IT managed services provider Redcentric under a contract with NHS Digital.

Orders and pilots

Bowyer says that before the exchange was up and running nobody could claim full compliance, and that this has prompted the first orders for circuits, a handful of significant procurement in progress and the launch of a few pilots for transition from N3.

“The real wave of connectivity starts in anger around October,” he says. “It’s probably two months behind schedule in terms of circuits but the core components are on the ground.”

He outlines three aspects to these components –  the Peering Exchange; the service management options; and the security monitoring tools – and says NHS Digital is providing suppliers with monthly updates on the approaching procurements.

“That’s particularly important for the smaller suppliers, so we’ve got informed and intelligent bidders going after the opportunities,” he says.

Public authorities have options in the route they take in their procurement. Much of the early attention has been focused on RM1045 network services framework run by the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), but procurement could also be made through OJEUs and CCS is working on a new framework which it hopes to let by the late autumn. This would make it available for what he predicts as a big wave of procurements in the first quarter of next year.

Compliance crucial

“It doesn’t matter which procurement route is used as long as the service is HSCN-compliant,” Bowyer says, adding that the new framework should provide scope for more vendors to enter the market. At the moment 15 have achieved compliance, but he expects the number to rise to 25-30.

He also emphasises the potential for new types of networks beyond the traditional multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) to provide services, pointing to the emerging availability of software defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) on the market, with some existing HSCN suppliers including it in their portfolios.

“NHS Digital and Innopsis have gone some way to say there is more than one way to deliver connectivity to HSCN,” he says. “The concept is that it should allow suppliers to be a lot more innovative.”

His faith in the broader appeal of the network stems from the fact that, despite the early emphasis on serving the NHS, one of its prime functions is to support the integration of health and social care.

“As the social care aspect starts bumping into HSCN, that touches every local authority. Every organisation that delivers some form of service to the citizen is going to start thinking about how they could use HSCN.

“It’s going to take a few years, but the foundation is there.”

The increasing take-up of cloud services by public authorities should also provide an incentive to use the network, as would the emergence of smaller, localised providers. Bowyers says the installation of the Peering Exchange and a growing awareness of the HCSN market is encouraging smaller firms to become involved.

Beyond the PSN

This is opening up the potential for a new approach to connecting individual networks. While many are still using the Public Services Network (PSN) – the ‘network of networks’ launched in 2011 – its importance is likely to decline following the Government Digital Service’s issuing of guidance that authorities can use internet services with the appropriate technical controls.

Bowyer talks about a future PSN as less of a formal mechanism and more a collection of networks in which the emphasis is on functionality and standards.

“The vital component is how those networks can integrate with each other,” he says. “You want a common capability to use internet based technologies, peering services, to make sure these networks can talk to each other and move data from one network provider to another.

“In the PSN world that was done by Government Conveyance Network. In the HSCN world we are using peering points delivered in already-built infrastructure, so it is cost-effective and in the future will be more flexible.

“Instead of two peering points as HSCN prescribes at the moment, why not have 20 or 30, which you will be able to do eventually.”

He sums up with a description of HSCN as a “beacon to show the wider public sector what they should be thinking about for the future of their networks”.

Maybe this should be qualified with a reminder of the Innopsis role in the creation of the network, and that its members are among those that could find some worthwhile business through its growth. But the landscape for public sector networks is changing and if HSCN proves to be as flexible as Bowyer says it could become an important fixture beyond the realms of health and social care.