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|The true God Mammon at work? " Rural broadband: connected churches bringing faster internet to Norfolk"|
|United Kingdom||Created: 12 Jul 2012|
From the top of All Saints church in the village of Salhouse, Norfolk, it’s striking how many other church towers can be seen, rising up from nearby villages. They are the tallest man-made objects for some distance and they could be the key to delivering decent broadband speeds to rural Norfolk.
WiSpire, a wireless internet service provider (WISP) backed by the Diocese of Norwich, is putting transmitters and receivers on top of Norfolk churches and using them to beam broadband signals across the county.
Church bells were once the only way to call villages together. Now the belfry in Salhouse church houses, alongside its 15th Century bells, some more modern communications equipment, which processes the signal sent from nearby Norwich to the mast on top of the church and then transmits it back out to the village. Subscribers in Salhouse, who previously were lucky to get as much as one megabit-per-second (mbps) broadband download speeds, are now enjoying up to 8mbps through the small receiver attached to their house or office.
The problem is one repeated across the country, with rural areas often struggling with traditional broadband because the signal delivered over copper wires degrades as you get further from the exchange. Fibre will solve that problem but in some rural areas it is prohibitively expensive to install because there aren’t enough premises to make it viable.
Sarah Lee, head of policy for the Countryside Alliance, has described fast, reliable broadband access as being “just as important as the need for gas, electricity and water”.
The Government has set a target of 90 per cent of premises in Britain to be able to receive broadband download speeds of at least 24mbps by the end of 2015. Assuming that target is met, it still means a wait of three years for a lot people who need fast broadband now, whether it’s for business, education or simply entertainment reasons. And it will leave 10 per cent of homes seeking other solutions.
WiSpire’s plan is to transmit its broadband signal across the county from church to church. Six churches are connected now and up to 10 more will come online over the next two months. By the end of next year the company hopes to have around 50 churches, covering the majority of Norfolk. There are even plans to put receivers on boats on the Norfolk Broads so that holidaymakers can keep an internet connection while they are on the water.
Another WISP, County Broadband, is delivering internet services to north Essex and south Suffolk. It partners with business sponsors or community groups to extend rural broadband to areas that were previously unable to access the internet reliably or at decent speeds.
An alternative for rural communities is satellite broadband. Last week satellite broadband provider ToowayDirect announced an upgrade of its services to deliver as much as 18mbps download speeds. In other areas, communities are raising money to install fibre themselves.
WiSpire is a joint venture between the church and Freeclix, a Norwich ISP founded by Steve Batson and Pete Freeman more than 10 years ago. When they came to look for ways to expand their wireless broadband network outside Norwich, they needed to find high spots, ideally tall buildings rather than expensive masts, to which to attach their equipment.
Churches were ideal, being relatively unlikely to change ownership or be demolished and typically being sited on high ground. The Diocese of Norwich, with a commitment to placing the church at the centre of rural communities, was keen to be involved. In many rural areas the post office and the village shop have gone, says David Broom, director of operations for the Diocese. For a lot of villages, he says, “the church is the only thing left”.
Delivering the internet is about more than giving villagers access to iPlayer. It could also play a role in securing the future of the churches themselves. WiSpire can connect cameras to its network and monitor the church, uploading footage to its servers so that even if an intruder damaged or stole the camera, the video evidence would be stored. With lead theft a growing problem for churches, a camera monitoring the roof will mean lower insurance premiums.
Lorna Allies, the vicar of All Saints in Salhouse, plans to offer classes to older people, teaching them the basics of using the internet to keep in touch with far-away friends and relatives, as well as offering the computers to young people on a drop-in basis. Offering those classes will help to secure funding to improve the facilities of the church and maintain the building.
Mr Broom says lack of decent internet access is a threat to the existence of many rural communities, acting as a brake on business growth and driving many young people out of the region and to the cities.
“It’s the young people that need access to the internet for job applications or just to keep in touch,” says Henry Cator, the High Sheriff of Norfolk, who uses the WiSpire service. “I don’t believe that just because you live in a rural community you should be disadvantaged.”
By Shane Richmond, Head of Technology (Editorial)
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|Source: Agnes Ingvarsdottir.|
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