So, when my father in law started renovating a farmhouse in rural Italy, I knew that sorting out the networking would be down to me.  The idea is to create a luxury villa that will be a popular holiday rental, provide much needed R&R for the owners, and in the quieter parts of the year be a great holiday destination for the whole extended family.  One of the owners really has to stay in touch over the Internet and has regular meetings via Skype and other social media.  There’s also keen football and rugby fans in the family who won’t want to miss a big match.  Since the UK free to air channels (i.e. the ones you could get from Freesat) moved to a UK Spotbeam, there’s almost no hope of receiving them in Italy.  So the obvious solution was to get a high speed broadband connection and stream the TV channels.

The villa already had a Wifi based commercial broadband service, which was quite patchy.  In the middle of the night it was quite good, but during the day it was very variable, ranging from awkward to totally useless.  Importantly, streaming video and VOIP/Skype was a non-starter.  There was also a telephone landline running into the house, but even just looking across the fields made it obvious that this would be useless – and the sheer number of log periodic antennas attached to chimney stacks across the area made it clear that everyone was using a commercial Wifi service.

So I looked at the various satellite broadband services on the market.  The last time I looked at satellite, it was a hybrid solution where the upstream side used an old school modem to e.g. request a web page, which would eventually lead to a burst of high speed data downstream from the satellite.  Latency was huge, which was an issue ten years ago, and these days it would be completely unusable for any kind of interactive usage like web browsing or VOIP.  Web pages are a particular issue because they’re not just one request – each part of the page, every image, and even lots of the text on modern sites – is a separate request to the web server, and until the web browser has received the complete page, it doesn’t know what to request.  With a latency measured in seconds, even small pages would take minutes to load.  Complicated pages like a Facebook news feed would never complete before something changed requiring a reload.

Modern satellite broadband systems are bidirectional – the dish sends a signal up to the satellite as well as receiving.  The three main offerings in the UK – Tooway, SES and Avanti – are all based on Ka band birds owned by Eutelsat, Astra and Avanti respectively.  All promise broadband speeds comparable to landline ADSL solutions, compatibility with streaming video and VOIP, and have pan-European coverage routed back to a UK-based datacenter, which makes the IP address appear to be in the UK. All of the service providers use clever acceleration technology, which mainly involves transparently caching data in the satellite modem, and analysis of web pages at the ISP so that images etc. are being sent down to the modem before the web browser has received the page and started requesting all of the objects needed.

So here’s a sneak peek at the “Earth Station” we constructed.  Shortly I’ll write some more about what I did and why, and how I optimised the local network to get the best out of the system.  I’ll also give my own opinions about how well it works and whether it’s a viable alternative to ADSL or FTTC broadband.