EU to go public with satellite navigation project

European nations scrap private partnership on Galileo

BRUSSELS -- The 27 countries of the European Union agreed today to scrap the partnership with the private sector behind Europe's most prestigious technology project, the Galileo satellite navigation system.

By taking Galileo public, the EU will follow the lead of the U.S., as well as the approach adopted by Russia and China in their pursuit of similar geopositioning systems.

The EU originally planned for a consortium of companies to bear two-thirds of the $4.5 billion development cost, but the consortium failed to agree on how to organize itself.

The companies also doubted the venture's commercial viability because it would face competition from Russia's GLONASS and China's Beidou systems, as well as from GPS, the U.S. network that is currently being modernized.

Galileo will be a network of 30 satellites beaming signals to receiving devices on the ground, helping users pinpoint their locations. It is intended to be interoperable with the U.S.'s 24-satellite GPS network, thereby more than doubling existing GPS coverage.

Galileo is also expected to be more exact than GPS, with precision of up to 1 meter (3.3 feet), compared to 5 meters with GPS technology. And unlike GPS, which is controlled by the U.S. military, it would be a civilian-based system and could not be turned off.

Last month, Jacques Barrot, the European commissioner for transport, proposed taking the project public and, after little hesitation, national governments agreed.

Ministers meeting in Luxembourg "unanimously agreed that work with the concession holders should be terminated and that the next phase would be considered under the responsibility of the public sector," said German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, who presided over the meeting.

"Galileo is, at present, the most important European high-tech project. It is of colossal importance," he added.

A final decision on how to fund Galileo is likely to be made in the fall after Portugal takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency from Germany.

"We must prove our worth in comparison with the U.S., Russia, Asia," Barrot said. "If we finance the construction of all satellites, it'll cost us about the same amount as 4,000 kilometers of motorways. This is an effort Europe should make."

China's Beidou and Russia's GLONASS navigation systems are expected to be in operation in the next three years, and although their primary role will be for the military, they will also compete for commercial contracts as well.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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