European Agency Gets OK For GPS-like Satellite System

Galileo to begin launching in 2006

The European Space Agency (ESA) last week said its 15 member states have reached an agreement that paves the way for the development of a satellite-based navigation system designed to rival the U.S.-developed Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

The agreement came just two weeks before the scheduled start of an international communications conference at which the frequencies to be used by the European system are expected to be decided.

The ESA said it's now ready to sign a joint development deal for the proposed Galileo system with the European Union, which will split the cost. The project's budget is expected to total 3.4 billion euros (about $3.9 billion), according to Dominique Detain, an ESA spokesman in Paris.

The ESA plans to launch the first of 27 active Galileo satellites and three spares in 2006 and complete the deployment two years later.

Because Galileo will likely transmit its signals within the same frequency band used by GPS equipment, users should eventually be able to buy receivers that can pick up location signals from both systems, said Ashok Wadwani, president of Applied Field Data Systems Inc., a GPS consulting firm in Houston.

The mixed support could provide better data availability and improved location accuracy. For example, Ken Chamberlain, a land surveyor at the Bureau of Land Management in Portland, Ore., said Galileo should make it easier for agency users operating in dense tree cover to access satellite location signals.

But before the ESA can proceed, it must first obtain rights to the needed frequencies at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-03), which starts next week in Geneva. The conference is being held under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency with more than 180 member states.

Restrictive Language

The U.S. government, in its draft proposals for WRC-03, inserted language that the ESA and EU view as threatening to Galileo. That language would set specific milestones for new satellite navigation systems to reach before frequencies could be assigned to them, including "clear and binding agreements for the manufacture and procurement of satellites."

John Alden, a spokesman for a WRC-03 delegation that will be led by the U.S. State Department, said the proposed language is designed solely to weed out "paper" satellite systems that are speculative or that could be used to tie up spectrum resources without ever being built. The U.S. has told European officials that it considers Galileo to be a viable system and that it isn't trying to impede its development, Alden said.

But Joern Tjaden, head of the Galileo interim support office in Brussels, said the U.S. draft language is one reason the ESA plans to launch the first of the Galileo satellites in 2006. By doing so, he said, the agency would meet the criteria proposed by the U.S.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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