The Church of England has reached a new agreement with the network sharing division of Vodafone UK and O2 – Cornerstone – to help boost 4G and future 5G mobile network coverage into poorly served areas (both rural and urban locations), which should make it easier for them to install discreet antennas.
Church towers and spires have already been used by a number of UK ISPs to help spread wireless broadband services into rural communities (e.g. WiSpire in Norfolk). Similarly last year saw the Government reach an accord to help formalise such use with 16,000 churches from the National Church Institutions (NCIs) of the Church of England (here), although initial progress was sluggish due to disputes over hefty access charges (here).
In fairness installing mobile equipment on churches carries some unique challenges, not least the need to protect historic buildings from damage and to ensure that such hardware is as discreet as possible. Despite this Vodafone’s Head of Networks, Key Prigg, said last year: “It looked like they were trying to help the community but really it has been about monetising the steeple.”
The new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) therefore represents significant progress by finally establishing an “efficient, predictable and fair process” toward deploying such equipment. Each installation will need the support of the church concerned and the MoU also provides a framework to help both parties comply with relevant legal requirements including – crucially for churches – ecclesiastical law.
The whole process has thus been simplified via new template agreements (wayleaves) for parishes and providers, with a trusted contractor to manage the process.
Becky Clark, Director of Churches and Cathedrals, said:
“Church of England churches have been hosting mobile-phone infrastructure to provide services to local people for over 25 years, and in that time the importance of having access to strong, reliable mobile network coverage has increased beyond measure.
Our 16,000 church buildings are a Christian presence in every community and have always been used to provide local people with help and support – from food banks and night shelters to harvest festivals and weddings.
This new agreement is in that same model; it does not place churches under any obligation, but for those which are well placed to support better mobile connectivity it gives them a clear way forward which protects their interests, and the building’s historic importance. Churches provide for the needs of everyday life, and in the 21st century mobile connectivity is a key part of that.”
Belinda Fawcett, Cornerstone’s General Counsel, said:
“We are delighted to be working with the Church of England to provide better mobile services. The Code legislation has assisted us in reaching an understanding and we are confident that the churches and their communities will greatly benefit from improved connectivity.
We are also very aware that churches have a duty to look after the historic significance of their buildings when installing mobile infrastructure and won’t let this be compromised in any way. This deal illustrates that working together benefits not only the parties involved but the wider community, whilst upholding the Government’s ambitions for a digitally connected Britain.”
Further details on the new process can be found here and here, although it remains to be seen how much of an impact this will have. Obviously the MoU only covers O2 and Vodafone, although it’s conceivable that this work could also provide a similar template for EE and Three UK to build on too, if they so wished.
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