The contract will provide a crucial infrastructure to underpin NHS IT modernisation plans. Government targets call for all NHS staff to have an e-mail account by March 2003.
Implementation work by EDS has been running in parallel with contract negotiations, with at least one pilot site set to go live this week. "We have been running implementation in parallel with business case approval," said Carrie Armitage, the NHSIA's head of access to information.
EDS was first announced as preferred supplier for the contract in May, ahead of rivals including BT Syntegra, for what was to have been a five-year deal worth an estimated £35m.
The £91.2m, 10-year deal signed last week has a built-in "break point" at five years. "Most of it is around putting together a contract with service levels and flexibility for the future," said Armitage. "Initially we want to target people who have no access to e-mail and people who work in the community," she said.
Plans for future development include instant messaging, and remote access via mobile phones and personal digital assistants.
Services will run across the NHS network, NHSnet, and the Internet using a secure connection, with roll out taking place over the next two years.
Under the contract all NHS staff will eventually get a personal mailbox that they can access from work, on the move or at home. It will also provide an electronic directory containing contact details for all NHS staff.
The national directory will categorise staff by roles and specialities, extracting details automatically from NHS systems. As the NHS begins to introduce electronic patient records the directory will help to determine whether staff are authorised to access patient data.
"It will provide key functionality for access permissions in electronic records," said Armitage. Access control services should become available from summer 2003.
Industry analyst Murray Bywater of Silicon Bridge Research said the e-mail contract showed that the NHS is becoming more corporate in its IT procurement. "Clearly a major change is taking place in the NHS' approach to implementing IT," he said.
"This programme is crucial to delivering a modern and dependable health service, as outlined in the NHS Plan," said Bill Thomas, president of EDS for the UK, Ireland Middle East & Africa.