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Satellite broadband secures Cornish observatory a brighter future

The Tolcarn Observatory near St Austell in Cornwall is putting its money where its mouth is and using satellite broadband to enhance its research work and educational outreach

Cornwall’s Tolcarn Observatory, a research and education centre dedicated to the search for exoplanets beyond our local solar system, has – fittingly – installed a satellite broadband connection to help secure its long-term future and widen the scope of its work.

Located in rural Cornwall in between St Austell and Falmouth, the observatory is one of many rural businesses in southwest England that has struggled with sub-standard broadband connectivity, with little hope of improvement.

According to centre director Grant Mackintosh, Tolcarn’s future was under threat because he had been unable to connect it to an adequately fast broadband connection, and had had to rely on mobile data.

“It was becoming so restrictive that I had considered relocating the whole facility to Scotland,” said Mackintosh, a specialist in spectroscopy, whose work has been featured on the BBC programmes The Sky at Night and Stargazing Live.

Tolcarn was able to take advantage of a subsidised connection provided through the European Union (EU) backed European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which is providing superfast satellite connectivity to small businesses in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles through service provider Avanti Communications.

Based at the nearby – and world famous – Goonhilly Earth Station on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, Avanti claims its satellite service is able to sustain a connection of up to 40Mbps down, making it the fastest satellite broadband offering on the European market.

The ERDF funding covers free user hardware – in this case, a dish and modem – subsidised installation and subsidised monthly tariffs based on different data packages selected by the user.

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After being approached by Avanti, which had heard about the observatory’s non-existent broadband, it took just two weeks to get a service up and running, and according to Mackintosh, Tolcarn’s connectivity problems have been solved at a stroke.

“I’ve tested the service to its limits and it is absolutely phenomenal,” said Mackintosh. “It allows me to connect 12 independent video sources with views of space and broadcast them live, in very high quality, anywhere in the world.

“I’ve heard people complain about the latency on satellite broadband systems, but I tested it by sending live images of the moon to a colleague in the US and, as I annotated the image on screen, he could see my notes pretty much immediately. It was outstanding.”

Besides collaborating with other astronomers around the world, Tolcarn can also now use the connection to remotely control its telescopes, while school groups have better access to the facility through services such as Skype.

Andy Williams, ERDF Cornwall Superfast Satellites Project Coordinator for Avanti Communications, based at Goonhilly, said: “When we heard the great work of the Tolcarn Observatory was being hindered by a lack of superfast broadband we immediately realised that our service was the perfect solution.

“It’s great to see our space-based service helping out fellow stargazers, but the Avanti satellite solution is also ideal for any Cornish rural business which cannot currently get a fast connection.”

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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