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Church spires to become mobile coverage hotspots

Following successful trials in East Anglia, DCMS and Defra plan to encourage rural vicars to host broadband connectivity hotspots in their churches

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the National Church Institutions (NCIs) of the Church of England have signed an agreement to encourage rural vicars to let mobile network operators (MNOs) and other broadband providers use church spires to boost local connectivity.

According to the government’s statistics, 65% of Anglican churches and 66% of parishes are deemed to be in rural areas, and more often than not, church spires and towers are some of the highest local landmarks around, making them ideal locations to place connectivity solutions.

Over 120 churches are today playing some role in delivering either mobile or broadband networks to their local areas, with the solutions deployed taking a variety of forms, including Wi-Fi transmitters, mobile masts, and even satellite relays, but with 16,000 buildings in 12,500 parishes in the Church of England’s estate alone, much more can be done.

To this end, the accord covers all types of mobile and broadband technologies, with churches free to explore different options to meet their particular community needs.

The government will play a role by offering access to advice for parishes and dioceses to enable them to consider supporting the project, and to develop digital skills in communities that take advantage of the scheme.

“Churches are central features and valued assets for local communities up and down the country. This agreement with the Church of England will mean that even a 15th century building can help make Britain fit for the future improving people’s lives by boosting connectivity in some of our hardest-to-reach areas,” said Matt Hancock, DCMS secretary of state.

The agreement was cooked up in support of the government’s Industrial Strategy, through which Westminster is trying to bulk up the UK’s connectivity, communications and digital sectors and investing in digital skills, industries and infrastructures to improve productivity and shore up the economy after Brexit.

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Two trial programmes in the Dioceses of Chelmsford and Norwich have already seen some success. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, has been pioneering the approach with County Broadband – a Colchester-based wireless service provider for the past five years, and said the local programme had significantly improved access to broadband services in rural Essex.

“We know that rural churches in particular have always served as a hub for their communities. Encouraging churches to improve connectivity will help tackle two of the biggest issues rural areas face – isolation and sustainability,” he said.

“Many new forms of technology are available to improve internet access in rural areas and I hope that this partnership between the Church of England and the Government will help rural churches consider how they can be part of the solution. I know that many churches already help people access the internet and provide digital skills training, and this accord is a natural extension of great work already occurring,” said Cottrell.

The Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, added: “I welcome this agreement. It builds on what we have been seeking to do in the Diocese of Norwich since 2011 with the creation of WiSpire, a company seeking to use church towers and spires to enable Wi-Fi connectivity in communities, especially in rural locations.

“Our parish churches are a truly national network, and to use them creatively to create new forms of connectivity enhances their value for the communities they serve.”

Rural affairs minister and deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, John Gardiner, moved to reassure rural conservationists that any new infrastructure installed would be minimally invasive.

“Clear guidance set out by both the Church and Historic England ensures that any telecoms infrastructure deployed does not impact on the character and architectural or historic significance of churches,” said Gardiner, adding that there was a possibility that similar agreements could be struck with other faith communities in the UK that possess similar estates.

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