Church joins the battle for Broadband in Norfolk

Church towers are poised to become wireless transmitters in the quest to give rural communities access to high-speed broadband.

The Church of England Norwich diocese has teamed up with city-based internet service provider (ISP) Freeclix to help businesses and homes being held back by slow, unreliable connections.

Also, the scheme will allow the churches to install high-speed webcams as part of a network of surveillance cameras to deter thefts of their roof lead and vandalism.

What is more, the network could boost what the churches can offer tourists – by giving visitors access to online information about the historic buildings as they wander around.

Announcing the the joint 'Wispire' project yesterday, diocesan deputy chief executive David Broom said: 'This is an exciting new venture for the church and one which will help us to serve our local communities, with the added benefit of helping to protect our church buildings from lead theft.'

Wireless receivers will be installed on church towers, and will act as 'high-points' for Freeclix to send a signal from its data centre in old Barclays bank vaults in Norwich.

As well as creating a Wi-Fi hotspot at the church, the building will then be able to transmit that signal from the tower to nearby homes and businesses.

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Mr Broom, who spent five years working for the Foreign Office in America building trade links with companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, said: 'Our focus in terms of the delivery of high-speed broadband is on the rural areas, where clearly the need is greatest, not only the residential but particularly the business side of these communities.

'It's businesses that are really suffering in these areas at the moment.'

Tests have already seen churches in rural areas receiving speeds of up to 17Mbps, and Steve Batson, joint managing director of Freeclix, said homes and businesses up to 6.5km from the towers could benefit from the signal.

He added: 'It's all dependent on the surroundings, but there is a good chance we can get to most properties as long as they are not in the middle of a forest.'

So far, five or six churches are lined up to join the scheme in areas such as Reepham and the Broads.

It is hoped every one of the 652 churches in the diocese – which covers most of Norfolk as well as the Waveney area of Suffolk – could eventually be part of Wispire.

A faculty – the Church of England's equivalent of planning permission – could be granted for the project in the next few weeks, and communities could start to benefit soon afterwards.

Mr Broom said the scheme was part of the Church's commitment to reinstate itself at the heart of communities. With many villages now without a pub, post office or shop, he said, its role as a 'gathering' place was more and more important.

He added: 'Wispire re-establishes churches as community hubs. Churches are sacred places, and we are not looking to have people sitting in them all day accessing the internet, but it is about using the church and having it as a hub for its community.'

The project would also bring in money: the joint venture would see Freeclix and Norwich Diocese sharing any profits.

Mr Broom said some of that money would filter through to the individual churches taking part to ensure they benefited too. He said: 'We would hope to perhaps enable the churches to benefit from a small commission, subject to local take-up. That would go into helping them care for and maintain the churches.'

Customer prices for the service have yet to be worked out, but Mr Batson said they would be in keeping with services already on the market.

Last month, the EDP and Norfolk County Council launched the Broadband: Back the Bid campaign, which aims to secure millions of pounds in government funding.

If successful, the money would be used to give the whole of Norfolk access to speeds of at least 2Mbps. Mr Broom said Wispire could play an important part in the roll-out of that scheme, which would potentially use wireless signals to reach communities where fibre-optic cabling was not an option.

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