RURAL church towers and spires used to help bring superfast broadband to an area could reap financial rewards for their PCCs, after a new accord with the Government.
It was announced on Sunday that the Church of England’s national church institutions (NCIs), which include the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners, had agreed with the Government, to encourage, where possible, PCCs’ use of church spires to improve broadband, mobile, and WiFi connectivity for the community — but particularly in rural areas where signals are poorest.
The accord states that “a modern telecommunications infrastructure is vital for a vibrant economy and inclusive society. By working together with mobile and broadband providers, we believe that we can help deliver improved connectivity, particularly in rural areas, and thereby bring about important practical benefits to congregations, local communities, local businesses and visitors alike.”
It suggests that the providers may pay churches to install the equipment: “The terms of any agreement with telecoms providers to host infrastructure may have other benefits, including not only the income generated by the agreement. . . but also the potential for other mutually beneficial terms, to be agreed, such as sharing the cost of maintaining a church tower or spire on which equipment may be mounted.”
It also acknowledges, however, that the accord is not a legal contract, and that no PCC will be obliged to install the technology. “Each Church entity must take its own decision regarding the use of property for which it has responsibility. This Accord seeks to encourage Church entities to consider and promote the benefits.”
In return, the Government will encourage investment in broadband companies, help to resolve any disputes between parties installing the technology, and provide advice to dioceses, parishes, and other landowners, it says.
The accord was signed at a round-table discussion convened by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, and representatives of fixed and mobile telephone providers, in December. The meeting was chaired by the Minister for Digital at that time, Matt Hancock, and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner.
NORFOLK DIOCESE/WISPIRESt Peter and St Paul, Carbrooke, has an antenna installed on its tower, which broadcasts internet for miles around (Features, 20 March)
“It is vitally important that people living in the countryside have the same opportunities as those in urban areas, and that means having strong mobile and broadband infrastructures in place,” Lord Gardiner said.
The idea is not new. More than 120 parish churches already help to deliver broadband and mobile services by means of wireless transmitters in spires and towers, aerials, satellite dishes, or fibre cables.
The diocese of Norwich has been installing the technology through its own company, WiSpire, based in Norfolk, since 2011. “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,” the Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd Graham James, said on Sunday.
The diocese of Chelmsford has also been piloting the scheme, through County Broadband, since 2013. “Our work has significantly improved rural access to high-speed broadband,” the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said.
“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.”
Advice on how PCCs can apply for planning permission to install the equipment on listed churches and buildings was issued by Historic England last year. It states that, before applying, PCCs must provide drawings and photographs of the proposed changes, including the equipment, cable routes, safety, access, and possible archaeological implications.
“Antennae, dishes or boxes may have an impact on the appearance or setting of the building,” it says. “They may also change its setting in the wider landscape, which is an important part of the building’s significance.”
ChurchCare, part of the Archbishop’s Council, which looks afters its cathedrals and church buildings, also issued guidance last year. It advised that PCCs should not sign up “unwittingly and prematurely” when approached by a mobile-phone operator or internet service provider.
Besides considering the possible impact on the fabric of the building, PCCs are encouraged to seek professional advice on gaining the relevant permissions, including a faculty, and consider how it might affect the community, health and safety, and insurance.
The agreement should be considered part of the C of E’s Renewal and Reform vision, it says. “The ability to communicate with others is a prerequisite for many aspects of the Church’s mission. Improved communications can of themselves constitute valuable, practical care for those within a parish or community.”