There is a new option to consider for business-class satellite internet connectivity: low earth orbit (LEO) technology. Starlink, is currently the most broadly available global solution for this high-speed, low-latency broadband. Its innovative LEO technology is a game-changer for businesses who rely on satellite service for high-speed internet. For organizations who struggle with latency using old-school geostationary (GEO) satellite connectivity, Starlink provides a viable alternative.
Beyond the limits of physical connections
The pathways from most homes and businesses to the internet are through cables. Those cables may be coaxial, copper, or fiber, but they are physical lines connecting that building to the Internet. Despite all the innovation and advances over the past decade, an astounding number of rural businesses struggle with reliable and performant network access. Sixty-six percent of rural small businesses say poor internet or cell phone connectivity negatively impacts their business. This issue now receives more attention as more people shift to remote work, wherever they reside.
“Old school” geostationary satellite connectivity
For over 20 years, GEO satellite technology has been available in North America. It provides broadband connectivity to most places that can see the sky. Generally sold under the brands Exede, ViaSat, and HughesNet, it continues to be a lifeline for people in rural areas who have no other provider options. However, the service can be expensive, and performance is inferior to landline options available in more densely populated areas. This can mean slower downloads and VPNs, poor video conferencing quality, and spotty streaming service.
For providers, it takes a lot of investment and work to make even this level of service available: The satellite dishes for Exede customers in the Americas likely point up at Viasat-2, a 14,000 pound satellite that launched in 2017 after taking 40 months to build. That one device cost $600 million.
The drawbacks of GEO Satellite
Connection anywhere you can see the sky is great, but GEO satellite service clients do have to contend with some limitations. In particular, latency. The Viasat satellites are in orbit 22,000 miles away. That means every bit of traffic has to travel a total of 44,000 miles up and back. The result is latency of around 600 ms – over half a second.
Viasat has improved on this through creative TCP optimizations in their platform, but those optimizations don’t help tunneled traffic like VPNs and SD-WAN, or other non-TCP traffic like most VoIP and video. Since real time calls take two-way communication, the high latency makes a Zoom participant delayed over one second in conversation. It requires a lot of patience to have a meeting when everyone must wait for those pauses.
Enter Starlink, LEO connectivity
The newcomer, and seeming game-changer, for those seeking a satellite connection is Starlink. Starlink leads the way in the LEO space. LEO is a different approach and a different type of connection.
Instead of a single giant geostationary satellite 22,000 miles away, Starlink utilizes a swarm of thousands (as of this writing 2,112) of smaller, relatively cheaper satellites. Starlink launches a new batch of satellites every week or so. They are less than 1/20th the size of ViaSat-2 (around 650 pounds) and create a constellation of satellites across the sky. The antennas at both the service location and at the ground station where the constellation is connected into the Internet switch between the satellites as they orbit past, just like a cell phone in a car zooming down the highway switches between towers as seamlessly as possible.
Key to reducing latency, the Starlink satellites are only around 200 miles up. That is 1/100th the distance to the GEO orbits. The result is low latency of around 40-60 milliseconds – a number quite similar to wired broadband in urban areas.
Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are promising new technologies. Perhaps we can look forward to a future when connectivity is not tied to physical wires. It could create opportunities and lower the cost of internet connectivity worldwide.
Our founder Joel Mulkey often works from his rural home where terrestrial connectivity options are sub-optimal (only very slow DSL is available), so he is always on the lookout for ways to improve his connectivity. He recently unboxed and installed his Starlink “Dishy” terminal, which he will connect to his Bigleaf router and mix with connections from a fixed wireless provider, 4G LTE, and a GEO satellite service. Check out his video on the results from that installation.
What are the concerns with Starlink?
LEO connectivity is complex and unproven. If you are looking to lean on Starlink for critical connectivity, it is healthy to be suspicious of its reliability. Can it perform as claimed? While Starlink is aiming to provide 1 Gbps, current customers are getting between 40 and 150 Mbps down. And when will they work out the kinks? On a weekend in April 2022, Starlink users across the globe experienced extensive outages that the company has not explained. The Starlink support page is sparse and not particularly informative.
Using the best of Starlink in any situation
For the lower latency and potential throughput increase that Starlink provides over the older GEO technologies, getting it for his rural location is hugely appealing for Joel. But as a sole source of connectivity, he can’t tolerate any unexpected outages.
“This is a place that Bigleaf really shines. I gain all the benefits of this new technology without being subject to the drawbacks. Bigleaf will optimize my use between Starlink and my other connections in real-time, insulating me from any outages or brownouts. Plus, I get a static public IP address block that works over all of my wireless circuits.” Joel said.
Bigleaf and Starlink applied
Bigleaf allows the connection of up to 4 circuits. Along with rural locations who lack options, a LEO satellite link could be valuable for any facility seeking a redundant connection that does not use the shared routes of many physical service providers. If a backhoe takes out the cabling to the building, Starlink would be unaffected.
With Bigleaf, a “backup” connection does not sit dormant awaiting an emergency. Unlike a traditional failover-only circuit, Bigleaf’s AI utilizes all connections simultaneously and with their same-IP failover, can automatically route traffic to the best available circuit if one fails. Even existing video conferences continue without dropping.
Bigleaf’s ability to automatically monitor your circuit conditions, intelligently load balance, and make routing and QoS changes in real-time further adds to its ability to deliver performant connectivity. In the instance of a rural site without any ideal broadband options, users can combine a more reliable but lower bandwidth connection with a less reliable but higher bandwidth account to get the best of both. In short, Bigleaf can monitor the health of satellite connections in real time, along with the other circuits being used, and route the identified traffic types down the respective circuits that will deliver the best application performance. This allows a user to optimize the circuit conditions of the LEO satellite path even if there is high latency or jitter. Even if you don’t choose Starlink, you can mix a 4G or DSL network connection (typically faster and fairly reliable) with a GEO satellite connection (available almost anywhere) and real-time apps would automatically use the lower latency network while file transfers would use the larger bandwidth connection.
To further support the use of Starlink, Bigleaf has recently included a preconfigured LEO satellite setting. Site operators can connect their Starlink base station to the Bigleaf router and quickly configure it to recognize the LEO satellite circuit.
Starlink won’t be the last innovative network access technology
Starlink is an exciting option that was hard to believe was possible just a few years ago. Many people are holding their breath to see what 5G capabilities will come to the market. One thing is certain: Technology will continue to offer new ways to connect us. As new options grow and refine, Bigleaf allows them to be utilized to their best now.
Learn more about how we can do so for your business by requesting a free demo today.