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Disciples spread the net wider

20 March 2015

In Norfolk, parish churches are turning into WiFi hubs for both their congregations and communities. Tim Wyatt reports


St Peter and St Paul, Carbrooke, has an antenna installed on its tower, which broadcasts internet for miles around (Features, 20 March)

St Peter and St Paul, Carbrooke, has an antenna installed on its tower, which broadcasts internet for miles around (Features, 20 March)

GUESTWICK is an unassuming village of about 130 people in the middle of Norfolk, miles from any major road or town. At one end of the village is the flint-walled parish church of St Peter, which looks out across open, flat fields. It feels like a quiet and sheltered place.

The sense of being cut off from the bustle of the rest of the world is exacerbated by woeful internet connections. The churchwarden at St Peter's, Robin Back, tells me that speeds could be as low as one megabit per second. At that rate, it would take up to 13 hours to download a normal-sized film.

"It was a real struggle, even with BT Business," Mr Back says, as we walk around the outside of his medieval church. Late snow crunches underfoot as we wander among centuries-old graves.

One by one, he points out seven squat black CCTV cameras which poke out from underneath the eaves, covering every angle of the building. Inside the church, just beneath the dark wooden rafters, two more cameras nestle against the whitewashed walls, which are peppered with bat droppings. Four tonnes of lead from the roof of St Peter's was stolen last year, and the cameras have been installed to make sure that it cannot happen again.

"The response times from law enforcement locally are as quick as they can be, but it is never going to be quick enough," Mr Back says. He estimates that the thieves were at the church for up to an hour. Now, the footage from the new cameras at St Peter's is streamed live, to be monitored round the clock in a control centre more than 60 miles south of Guestwick, in Ipswich.

BUT how can that be done, when local internet speeds are so slow? The answer lies at the top of St Peter's Saxon church tower. An inconspicuous white pole pokes out from the castellations at the top. This is, in fact, an antenna, which broadcasts wireless internet for miles around. It links into a network of similar antennae on church spires across Norfolk, giving isolated rural churches 21st-century access to the internet for the first time.

Mr Back leads me up a creaking and wobbly wooden ladder into the 900-year-old church tower to show me a small wooden box. Inside it lies all the equipment necessary to connect the medieval church to the rest of the world. Shiny plastic cables run up and down the tower out of the box, and on the floor next to it is a flat-screen TV showing live images from the CCTV cameras.

A ladder appears in one as we watch, and then, slowly, a ruddy-faced workman heaves into view, to make some final adjustments to the camera. A loudspeaker embedded in the tower crackles into life, and the disembodied voice of someone in the Ipswich control-centre echoes around the church.

"If they see someone who is up to no good, the idea is to warn them that the police are on their way," Mr Back says. It is obvious that he is quietly proud of his church's technological revolution.

The novel scheme is run by the diocese of Norwich, and is called WiSpire. It not only provides internet access to the churches themselves, people in the area can also subscribe, and have the service beamed from the spires to their homes. In cut-off Guestwick, almost a quarter of the village has joined up, including Mr Back.

"We get eight megabits at home, which, in the middle of Norfolk, is about six times what we would normally expect," he says enthusiastically.

BIDDING farewell to St Peter's and Guestwick, I returned to the 4X4 that had taken me to the village. As we drove along the winding roads, the deputy diocesan secretary for Norwich, David Broom, explained to me how WiSpire works.

The scheme began in 2012, and has now been installed in 40 churches across the diocese. Five hundred people now subscribe to the benefits it offers. Last year, the company turned over £280,000, although it made a small loss because of up-front costs as it builds the infrastructure of the network.

"It is a win-win for the parish and the diocese," Mr Broom says. WiSpire installs the system at no cost to the parish. "We pay £1 a month to each church for each subscriber they get. They receive money, and, when we get into profit, so will the diocese."

The technology uses wireless internet, which is broadcast at a greater frequency than the conventional WiFi found in your router at home. This allows it to send broadband internet at useable speeds to homes up to five kilometres away (and, in one case, 30 kilometres). But it can work only if the antenna is on a tower that is tall enough, and if there is a broadly clear line-of-sight.

IN SOME villages, the service has made a significant difference. A small parish in the WiSpire network decided to live-stream its fund-raising singathon over the internet last year, and some 2000 people logged on to watch. Normally, the event brings in about £1500, but the online audience helped to raise a staggering £12,000.

"There is a real church-mission aspect to it," Mr Broom says. "It says to a generation that has grown up interacting to the world through mobile means that the Church is relevant, and in that space. The perception is that the Church is still in the 19th century." He also raises the prospect of broadcasting funerals or weddings live over the internet, to family and friends who could not attend on the day.

And if long-standing church members were to find themselves in a care home, "they could watch the service from the home." If you add this to the Church's providing low-cost broadband (WiSpire subscribers pay only £13 a month) to their communities, "the church becomes the hub" once more.

The vision for the diocese is to end up with a network of 80 churches, and then expand it into other parts of England. They have had talks with the diocese of Ely, and are in touch with Lord Lloyd-Webber, who hit national headlines in January when he suggested every church should be a WiFi hotspot, to encourage more visitors (News, 9 January).

One obstacle was encountered early on in the programme. A couple of parishioners objected to the first installation, on the grounds that broadcasting the internet through radio waves from a spire would be harmful to their health.

They said that they suffered from "electromagnetic hypersensitivity", or, in the slightly less technical words of Mr Broom, "They said, 'It will make us ill and fry our brains.'" The diocese took the complaints seriously. It held a consistory court hearing, and called on experts from the Health Protection Agency, and King's College, London.

THE court was told how several studies have shown that, although the symptoms (which can include rashes, burning sensations, headaches, and fatigue) are often genuine, the sufferers are just as likely to report ill health after exposure to fake electromagnetic fields as to real ones.

The symptoms are instead thought to be the result of the nocebo effect (the opposite of the placebo effect), which is said to cause ill health when the body mistakenly believes itself to be ill.

Once that bump in the road was overcome, WiSpire spread rapidly across Norfolk, including my second stop: St Michael and All Angels, in the modest market town of Aylsham.

The spacious church is nestled in the centre of the town, its churchyard surrounded by tea-shops, a Co-op supermarket, and a computer-repair business. The pub is busy with locals and visitors tucking into hearty lunches, and there is little sign of the isolation felt so keenly in Guestwick.

Inside the church, striking stone columns and a rare pre-Reformation screen compete for attention with a blizzard of posters and leaflets. As we speak to the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Andrew Beane, a handful of quiet volunteers dust the pews, and vacuum around us.

Mr Beane's church has used its WiSpire connection not to provide the town with broadband (it already receives a fairly capable BT service), but to turn the building into a digital oasis, humming with internet-enabled gadgets and initiatives.

A series of signs scattered throughout the church lead visitors on a tour; one, which is attached to a set of candles, explains why they are lit, and includes a small QR code (a matrix bar-code, which can be read by a smartphone). Connect your smartphone to the church's WiSpire WiFi, point its camera at the code, and it fires up a video of the Archbishop of York talking about the importance of prayer in Christian faith.

MR BEANE is unapologetically enthusiastic about the blessings of WiFi as he points out these and other innovations dotted throughout his church.

"I want to get a little video camera so we can record services, so people can log in and watch what's going on," he said. "It would be really good to stream the service on a Sunday morning into the local nursing home."

The reliable and speedy WiFi in his church has also encouraged non-regulars to come to a coffee morning in the nave, knowing that they can browse on their tablets as they drink. "It's very simple at the moment, but there's a lot of scope," Mr Beane explained. Another plan is to install a TV screen at the foot of the church spire, to broadcast a live video feed of the bell-ringers at the top.

Members of the congregation have apparently embraced the novelty, and it is also gradually altering perceptions. A group of secondary-school students visited the church before Christmas, and were apparently impressed that they could access free WiFi.

It is all about "rediscovering a minster model for church", Mr Beane says, linking the provision of free WiFi to his church's long-standing farmers' market and foodbank. The church used to be each community's place of hospitality, commerce, and entertainment, he says, and is now gradually becoming just such a hub again. "It creates the church as not being this place that you only come to on a Sunday, but a living place."

Aylsham is an important spoke in the WiSpire wheel: it serves as a base station to connect several churches in surrounding villages to the network, and thus offers internet to the neighbours.

With an obvious satisfaction at the success of his scheme, Mr Broom says that the diocese longed to replicate WiSpire's achievement in Aylsham across the county. "We would like to do more of these; Andrew is kind of blazing a trail," he said.

Discussions are under way with other dioceses and also the national church authorities about expanding the network. As we bade the buoyant Mr Beane goodbye, and drove out of Aylsham, the WiFi revolution in Norfolk seemed almost unstoppable.


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