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Slow Progress on Harnessing Church Spires for Mobile and Broadband UPDATE

Saturday, June 16th, 2018 (7:24 am) - Score 2,055
uk church in burghill

The UK government’s new accord with churches, which was supposed to make it easier for church spires to be used by network providers in order to help spread faster broadband and mobile across rural areas, has reportedly only made sluggish progress due to disputes over hefty access charges etc.

The idea of using churches – usually one of the highest places in a rural community – in this way is nothing new and some ISPs, such as WiSpire in Norfolk (partnered with the Dioceses of Norwich), have been doing it for a long time. The government has been keen to spread support for this approach and so in February 2018 they reached an accord to do just that with the National Church Institutions (NCIs) of the Church of England (here).

Estimates suggest that there are about 16,000 churches across England alone and roughly two thirds of those are in rural areas, which presents a significant opportunity. On top of that the recently revised Electronic Communications Code (ECC) was also supposed to make it easier and cheaper to deploy new infrastructure (masts, fibre optic cables etc.) on public or private land, not least by reducing rental charges.

Unfortunately all has not quite gone according to plan and some operators have vented frustration over their attempts to make use of such builders.

Kye Prigg, Vodafone UK’s Head of Networks, said (FT):

“It looked like they were trying to help the community but really it has been about monetising the steeple.”

On the one hand network operators have tended to claim that landowners sometimes raise rents or charge extortionate access fees, while on the other hand landowners often perceive operators as using the new ECC rules to force down fees to such extremely low levels that it ultimately discourages their engagement. The government has been attempting to resolve these disputes and recently ordered both sides to work together.

The silver lining in all this is that the Anglican church is now developing new guidance with a Goldman Sachs backed company called Shared Access, which is an independent owner and operator of shared wireless communications infrastructure (i.e. leasing space on their sites to different operators). The idea is that they could act as an intermediary, such as by purchasing sites for a lump sum and then leasing them onward to operators.

As usual it will take a bit longer for the details to be finalised (assuming it happens) and even more time after that before we know if the new approach is able to deliver a positive outcome. Meanwhile all of this debate over church spires rather ignores the other challenge of getting a decent backhaul capacity link to supply that infrastructure in the first place, which isn’t always so easy to do in isolated rural areas.

UPDATE 11:14am

On the point about backhaul. We’ve been informed that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), specifically their Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) team, are in early discussions with the Church of England (CoE) about including churches in scope for their Public Sector Building Upgrades (PBSU) workstream. This could make them eligible for grant funding for a Gigabit capable Fibre link, which might help to mitigate the problem.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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6 Responses
  1. Avatar wireless pacman

    Hmm… …a “for profit” intermediary? That will bring fees down nicely, not!

    • Avatar occasionally factual

      And anyone expecting the CoE to be charitable is deluded.

      One of the UK’s largest landowners and only interested in maximising the income from it.

      Even their investment portfolio has been found to have shares in unethical firms (for a Christian organisation).

  2. Avatar A Builder

    @occasionally factual

    Historically the church’s massive portfolio has been massively mishandled.

    They used to be an even bigger landowner/property owner but before the 90’s crash piled into the stock market. And lost a bundle.

    The sale of vicarages over the years has lost the church £B’s in lost value. If they had just kept them their asset value would have risen in line with rising house prices. This was all disclosed in a report for the Church Commissioners a few years ago if you want to look it up.

    That being said I don’t see why this should be done for peanuts as the spire costs money to maintain as would a mast to build. The fact it is there doesn’t make it free. However, it is the old some steady money is better than no money at all, argument. So there is a level of hypocrasy in the ISP’s arguments which probably correlates with the level of hypocrasy in that weeks sermon……

    • Avatar occasionally factual

      When this issue (churches to be used as comms links) was mentioned in these pages a while ago, I commented at the time that it would not be cheap.
      Looks like I was correct.

  3. Avatar Martin

    Goldman Sachs?? doesn’t anybody in the church admin read the papers?

  4. Avatar dragoneast

    Looks like traditional civil service bunker mentality strikes again. Lots of disparate “initiatives” and no joined-up thinking. It all creates work so it’s OK. And of course it creates publicity and there is no such thing as bad publicity.

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