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Parish Churches: Wi-fi/Broadband

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 2 March 2017

1. What progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. (909024)

7. What progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. (909031)

9. What progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. (909033)

I would certainly like to welcome the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to her position and I look forward to working with her at these question sessions.

There has been a lot of interest from colleagues in this question of how to provide the internet to parts of the country that currently have poor provision. Churches play an important role in supporting community infrastructure, and the Diocese of Norwich has led the way. Since 2011, it has been the majority shareholder in WiSpire, which provides wi-fi internet signal boosters to churches across the diocese. We are in early discussions to expand that provision into the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and Ely dioceses.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer? Can she explain how the Church is engaging with communities that live in particularly rural and sparsely populated areas to enable them to receive high-speed broadband?

Obviously, the topography of Lancashire is challenging, so I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s case. In fact, I went to see an example of a wi-fi booster signal, and as long as there is a line of sight between a church tower and another church tower, or a high building, it is possible to provide internet coverage in remote rural areas that currently have no signal. I encourage him to speak to the Bishop of Carlisle and I will give every support in his endeavour to ensure that his constituents are not digitally divided.

Right across the country, church buildings are central to strong local communities. Will my right hon. Friend explain whether it has been possible to provide wi-fi and broadband in listed churches and chapels to help those buildings to remain sustainable well into the future?

I am grateful for that question, because there is a commonly held myth that it is not possible to amend ancient and listed buildings in these ways, but as my hon. Friend will have seen from the success in Norwich diocese, there is no fundamental barrier to putting a wi-fi booster set or a mobile phone booster on the top of a church tower or spire. That is why the Government have welcomed the partnership with the Church of England to try to reach our notspots.

Will my right hon. Friend outline what work the Church is undertaking to assess the potential scale of this project, and how Members can identify buildings in notspot areas that could be used for wireless transmitters?

Yes; my hon. Friend is right. I am sure that he would like the Church in Shrewsbury to be actively involved in this. The absolute key to this is knowing where the notspots are. I met the Minister for Digital and Culture, as I think many colleagues in the House did, who has an enormous spreadsheet that shows where the gaps are, and that is now being matched to what the Church can provide. We have offered to help to create a property asset register, so that this matching process can take place, and I hope it will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituency.