Mobile providers are preparing to install antennas in church spires across the country, after ministers and bishops signed an agreement aimed at using the Church of England’s buildings to help obliterate blackspots.
A new “accord” between the Government and the Church sets out a joint plan to improve “connectivity” in rural areas by making use of spires and towers, following the successful use of the structures to improve access to high-speed broadband in two dioceses.
The new agreement, signed by Matt Hancock, the Digital Secretary, and Dr David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester, following a summit in December, states that the Government and Church will work with both “mobile and broadband providers” to “help deliver improved connectivity”.
It includes a pledge to work with operators to draw up a standard contract that that could be used for churches hosting mobile and and broadband equipment.
Currently more than 100 churches are used to boost broadband signal in local areas, after the dioceses of Norwich and Chelmsford pioneered schemes to encourage the use of their buildings to help improve the reach of high-speed internet.
Only a handful currently contain equipment boosting mobile signal. The agreement is intended to lead to far more of the Church’s 16,000 church buildings housing mobile and broadband equipment, which currently includes wireless transmitters, aerials and satellite dishes.
St Giles Church in Great Maplestead, Essex, which has been fitted with 4G transmitters CREDIT: PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Mobile UK, the industry body representing EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, welcomed the announcement, stating that where spires and towners could be used to boost signal, the operators would “extend their use of churches to increase mobile coverage and capacity while respecting thechurch environment.”
The announcement of the accord comes after Ofcom, the communications regulator, disclosed that 82 per cent of properties in rural areas do not receive a 4G signal from all of the major phone networks, compared to 36 per cent in urban areas – meaning that many people are unable to access high-speed internet on their mobiles.
The disclosure, in December, led to claims that families and small businesses in rural areas were being “left behind”.
The agreement between the Church and Government, which has also been signed by Lord Gardiner, the rural affairs minister, and William Nye, secretary general of the Archbishops’ Council, states: “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.”
Mr Hancock said: “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.
St Giles Church in Great Maplestead, Essex CREDIT: PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH
The Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, told The Sunday Telegraph that, in a “digital world”, he regarded the deprivation of signal in some areas as “a very serious impoverishment of peoples’ lives.
“In rural communities this is a very real issue which people in towns and cities often don’t fully appreciate. “In that spirit we want to do what we can to help make this as accessible as possible.”
He added: “We’ve got an awful lot of buildings with towers and spires so it seemed a very practical way in which we could be serving our communities.”
Officials said that “clear guidance” by the Church and Historic England “ensures that any telecoms infrastructure deployed does not impact on the character and architectural or historic significance of churches.”
The agreement notes that “improvements in digital connectivity can have a wide range of benefits” including “improved social interaction with family and friends” and supporting access to skills and training.
“The ability to communicate with others is a prerequisite for many aspects of the Church’s mission,” it adds.