Church of England gives blessing to Vodafone Open RAN to boost rural mobile

Leading UK operator joins hands with church to improve 4G mobile coverage in rural UK locations

UK operator Vodafone has announced a partnership with the Church of England (CoE) to use the latter’s estates to offer enhanced mobile connectivity using open radio access networks (OpenRAN) in regions of the country that are traditionally underserved by high-quality networks.

Vodafone has been leading the drive for OpenRAN development in the UK. In January 2022, it announced it was teaming up with Samsung Networks Europe to install the UK’s first 5G OpenRAN site, and in February 2023, began working with Orange to develop OpenRAN sharing specifically for rural locations around Europe.

When they announced they were merging operations, Vodafone and Three UK also committed to closing the rural divide faster by delivering 4G to 95% of the UK in their first year as a combined company, exceeding the UK government’s target in the Shared Rural Network target. They have also committed to rolling out 5G Standalone to 95% of rural areas by 2034.

The rural offer will now be extended through the partnership with the CoE, whereby Vodafone will work with mobile coverage services specialist Net CS to install new mobile technology in 11 Church of England parish churches across the UK to provide strong and reliable 4G coverage to the nearby rural communities.

Churches have long been seen as an important part of delivering mobile coverage to rural and urban areas, often located in central, elevated sites in a community. The 11 sites will deliver Vodafone 4G to areas which have historically struggled to receive good quality and reliable mobile coverage.

The 11 churches involved in the programme are The Blessed Virgin, Brompton Regis, Somerset; St Michael and All Angels, Ewyas Harold, Hereford; St Mary, Elsing, Norfolk; St Mary and St Bartholomew, Cranborne, Dorset; St Thomas of Canterbury, Thorverton, Devon; St Cyr and Julitta, Newton St Cyres, Devon; St Mary the Virgin, Martham, Norfolk; All Saints, Broad Chalke, Wiltshire; St Nicolas, Elmdon, Essex; All Saints, Croxton, Norfolk; and St Michael and All Angels, Whitwell, Norfolk.

The project has made use of OpenRAN installations in that they occupy a smaller physical footprint and require less power than traditional single-vendor systems. 

Read more about Open RAN

Explaining the remit of the project, Andrea Dona, network and development director at Vodafone UK, said: “Churches are typically very tall, on high ground and close to the community we’re trying to connect. This makes them the perfect place to install a mobile site, and now we’ve developed technology that’s small enough not to spoil the appearance of the church. Our aim is to use this cutting-edge technology to improve mobile coverage in as many rural locations as possible. This is an important step in ensuring rural communities can enjoy all the benefits of mobile connectivity.”

The Bishop of St Albans’ Alan Smith added: “This project is an example of the many ways churches benefit their local communities. As well as delivering better mobile coverage, the improved connectivity achieved through these new church-based sites helps combat the social justice issue of poor connectivity which affects many residents in rural areas.

“The key consideration for us has always been the wishes of local communities, who have been widely supportive of these new sites,” he said. “Net CS, our infrastructure facilitator, ensures that the new installations are unobtrusive, safe for our congregations and the wider community, and will deliver benefits to church users and the whole community.”

Net CS boasts in-depth knowledge of deploying coverage in a church environment, including the care that must be taken with heritage assets such as ancient church buildings. It has designed the church installations using a neutral host format, so they can be connected to multiple network operators.

“This project clearly demonstrates the value of churches as a key part of the nationwide solution to mobile not-spots,” said Net CS chairman Peter Morrell-Brown. “OpenRAN has made a lot of these sites viable for the first time, providing new locations that could go a long way towards driving better rural and urban coverage across the country.”

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