Monday, 3 December 2007

Europe gets its own GPS

After much hand-wringing and negotiation, the EU has finally agreed on a framework to go ahead with the ‘Galileo’ program, a $5 billion satellite navigation system which it says will give it “strategic independence” from the US.

Friday in Brussels ministers announced that work on the system, which is designed to rival the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), will finally begin after five years of delay. The announcement caught some off guard because many had assumed the project was dead on arrival. According to the ministers, the system will be operational by 2013.

The decision is important for a few reasons. The fact that GPS, which is the only satellite navigation system now available to consumers, businesses, militaries or governments, is controlled by the US government meant that the US can deny other country’s access to it at any time. As the world’s militaries have become more and more reliant upon global positioning, the potential problems of this system being owned and run by the US military have become glaringly obvious.

The second reason the decision is important is because it highlights some of the problems with the functionality of the GPS system itself. The Galileo system would be more precise for consumers, who use the system for satellite navigation systems in their cars or on their mobile devices, as well as providing more accurate reading in very high or very low altitudes.

Of course, which of these reasons was the main motivator for the project depends on who you ask. The UK, which is sensitive to any perceived European military rivalry with the US because of the “special relationship,” has insisted all along that Galileo is a purely commercial system, evidenced when a UK spokeswoman told the Financial Times this weekend, “"Galileo is a complement to GPS rather than a replacement.”

Contrast that with comments by Günter Verheugen, vice-president of the European Commission, to the same paper: "The main reason [for Galileo] is strategic independence. It should have been made clear from the beginning. It is a system that nobody can deny us and will always work. We have guaranteed access."

The US has always insisted that it would never turn off or block access to its GPS system, even in a time of war, but the number of people who believe that is basically zero, especially when it isn’t in writing.

Incidentally, remember my frustrations with the GPS system on my Nokia phone that I bought shortly after I moved here? Well I did a software upgrade last week and suddenly the satellite can locate me instantly, without having to keep the phone still, even indoors! No more getting lost for this guy.

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