By Trevor Clawson

Few things in life are more frustrating than living and working in a town, village or stretch of countryside that is served by a feeble or non-existent mobile phone coverage. Whether it’s an urgent work matter or simply a call to say hello to a friend or relative, when the signal strength hovers around one bar, connection can’t be taken for granted. And even if the call does get through, there is a strong likelihood that the signal will drop out in mid-conversation.

In an attempt to bring relief to those living in areas where connectivity is poor, the Church of England has stepped up to the plate. Under an accord with the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Church Spires are to be pressed into service to improve not only mobile but also broadband and WiFi coverage.

Still Patchy

The patchy nature of Britain’s communications infrastructure is a problem for a surprisingly large swath of consumers and businesses. According to a report by regulator Ofcom – Connected Nation 2017 – mobile users across a third of the UK are unable to even make phone calls or send texts on at least one of the four main networks. Meanwhile, the same report found that while 91% of premises can now access fixed broadband speeds of 24 megabits or above – the minimum stipulated by the government – 1.1 million households are struggling with slower connections. And while there are black spots in London,  fast broadband deprivation is most prevalent in rural areas.

The poor coverage that afflicts some areas is not necessarily down to lack of investment. Back in 2014, the big four mobile companies committed to a £5bn spend to ensure that 90% of the country had voice and text coverage by 2017. But the providers point to the problems associated with obtaining planning permission to build masts. Fixed broadband doesn’t have that problem but running fibre cables to remote areas is costly. Some of the gaps might be filled by wireless solutions, but again, this requires masts.

Churches Ideally Positioned

Divine Intervention - Church of England Spires to Plug Digital Dead Zones

But the English countryside is dotted with churches – normally with high spires that might be used to extend wireless coverage.

So this week the Government announced that it signed an accord with the Church of England that should see at least some of its buildings being used to house the necessary equipment. And as Culture Media and Sports Minister Matt Hancock pointed out,  many of the Church’s buildings are ideally placed, given that 65% are in rural areas.

“Churches are central features and valued assets for local communities up and down the country,” he 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.”

And as the government sees it, improved digital connectivity will bring a wide range of benefits to both businesses and consumers in communities that are currently signal poor. In the case of private individuals, it will not only be easier to make and receive calls but also – as the Minister pointed out – to access online public services.

Businesses have perhaps even more to gain. In 2017, a poll of members carried out by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC)  found that 30% of businesses in rural areas considered their broadband unreliable. BBC director General said businesses were let being let down.

“Business communities across the UK still report that our digital infrastructure is not fit for purpose. Throughout the country, significant numbers of companies of every size and sector lack reliable internet connectivity – a basic requirement for businesses to operate efficiently in today’s world.”

According to the BCC, better connectivity would encourage companies to access the growing range of services that are available from cloud (aka software as a service) providers, while also enabling them to upload and download large files, trade online with customers and suppliers and introduce remote access working for employees. This view was echoed this week by Matt Hancock.

The Church’s Role

Divine Intervention - Church of England Spires to Plug Digital Dead Zones

All of which begs the question: can the Church of England’s estate of buildings really play a significant part in delivering connectivity?

The short answer is ‘possibly’? The agreement is intended to encourage Church authorities at the level of dioceses and parishes rather than imposing any commitments. In other words, CoE officials will be invited to consider ways in which providing infrastructure could benefit their own communities.

The Church has form in this regard. In Norwich, the Church has been providing WiFi to local communities through the WeSpire programme. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Chelmsford has partnered with County Broadband to put antennae in around 20 Church towers to deliver wireless broadband to parishioners.  Around the country, there are thought to be about 120 such initiatives.

Commenting on the DCMS accord, the Bishop of Chelmsford stressed that providing enhanced connectivity strengthens bonds between Churches and their surrounding communities.

“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. I hope that this partnership between the Church of England and the Government will help rural churches consider how they can be part of the solution,” he said.

For its part, the trade association MobileUK said the industry would assess the options as they become available.

“Where there is a need, a suitable building is available and appropriate terms can be agreed, the mobile operators will continue to extend their use of churches to increase mobile coverage and capacity while respecting the church environment,” said director, Hamish Macleod.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting the accord to deliver instant or even medium-term results. The suitability of using a church building is likely to be decided on a case-by-case, or at least a parish-by-parish basis, taking into account the utility of the building (from the network provider’s point of view) and the impact on the community and the local environment.

But given the number and position of Church of England properties, there is an opportunity to do away with at least some of England’s digital dead zones.  That will mean less of us standing in chairs in the garden to get a signal.