European GPS system hits funding roadblock

Europe's grand plan to build its own version of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) has run into a financial roadblock and could be canceled unless approved at a meeting of European Union (EU) heads of state in Brussels later this week.

Last week, European transport ministers at a meeting in Brussels failed to approve funding for the European Union's half-share of the $2.3 billion needed to fully develop the satellite-based Galileo location system. Loyala de Palacio, the EU energy and transport minister, said that unless the funding gets quick approval by the end of the year, "the Galileo project will go up in smoke."

Last month, the European Space Agency approved $466 million in funding for Galileo (see story). But development can't proceed without matching funding from the EU, and the project failed to receive approval from the needed majority of eight EU transport ministers.

Countries opposed to funding the system expressed concern about Galileo's cost/benefit ratios and the need for EU funding for more than 20 years -- even though the system is designed to be self-supporting through user charges for advanced positioning and location services as well as taxes on terminals.

The EU had originally backed Galileo to avoid dependence on the U.S. GPS system, which is funded by the Defense Department and subject to shutdown, jamming or manipulation in time of war. Dual-band Galileo/GPS receivers would also provide greater accuracy than single-channel receivers. GPS receivers are used in a variety of enterprise applications including surveying, fleet management, aircraft navigation and truck and cargo tracking systems. Consumer receivers used by hikers and casual boaters sell for $100 or less.

"It will be a shame if the plug is pulled on Galileo," said Richard Langley, a professor of geodesy at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick. "There are real technological advantages, besides the economic and political ones trumpeted by the [European Commission], to having Galileo operating alongside GPS.

"A dual-constellation global navigation system will offer increased accuracy, integrity, availability and continuity compared to GPS operating on its own," he said. "A lot of research and development work on designing Galileo has already taken place. All that work will be for naught if the EU pulls the plug."

Even if the EU cancels Galileo, Langley said, Russia's Dec. 1 launch of three new Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) satellites holds out hope for full-scale development of a second global satellite-based location and positioning system. Glonass was started under the Soviet Union and has been troubled by funding problems for most of the past decade.

Langley said the three satellites launched Dec. 1 boost the Glonass constellation to a total of nine satellites. The Russian Space Agency and Russian Space Ministry have developed a $765 million Glonass replenishment program designed to boost the number of satellites in orbit to 18 to 20 by 2005, Langley said.

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