EU Has Big Plans for Galileo Navigation Service

The European Union plans to move into the navigational big leagues with its plan for Galileo, a next-generation global satellite navigation system that it hopes will rival existing systems in the U.S. and Russia.

Galileo is a state-of-the-art system that will be the first to make civilian use a priority, according to Sarah Lambert, European Commission spokeswoman for Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock, referring to the military origins of both the U.S.'s GPS (Global Positioning System) and Russia's Glonass. When the system is fully operational in 2008, it will help optimize the flow of cargo traffic and also serve communications companies.

EU Transport Ministers meeting in Luxembourg last month approved an initial 40 million euros (US$40.4 million) to help finance the first 18-month stage of the project (through December 2000), which will prepare the ground for the system that will involve 21 or more satellites. The European Space Agency (ESA) will provide another 40 million euros for this start-up phase. The system could cost a total of 2.9 billion euros. The Commission hopes that the private sector will finance half this amount with the 15 member states of the EU sharing the other half.

During this initial phase the Commission and ESA will design the system's architecture, its signal structure and organizational map. They will also settle certain security issues and ensure adequate spectrum allocation, and explore how to cooperate with other countries; Japan and Canada have already expressed interest in the system. The EU will also open negotiations with both the U.S. and Russia to ensure that Galileo is compatible with its competing systems. The EU will hold technical discussions with the U.S. on July 14.

The EU could have chosen the cheaper option of simply cooperating with the ongoing upgrading of the American system, but the Commission and Member States agreed that it was time to develop their own system that placed the interests of civilian users above that of the military. In this way the EU hopes to avoid the current situation where the GPS at times provides unreliable signals to civilian navigators when the satellites have to be repositioned for military purposes, a Commission official remarked. The EU also claims that the GPS provides spotty coverage of Scandinavia.

A major challenge for Galileo's success involves the fact that the U.S. provides the basic GPS signal free of charge, so the EU will have to find a source of public money to allow Galileo to compete effectively.

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