Galileo’s new world vision

Europe’s answer to the US’s Global Positioning System is expected to boost the electronics industry.

Practically everyone has heard of the Global Positioning System. In particular, satellite navigation systems for cars have done much to raise popular awareness. But not so many people know exactly what GPS is: a system of 27 US military satellites. Though the system is available free of charge to providers of civilian services, the US government will not guarantee availability in an emergency.

Because of this, European governments are planning their own civilian version. It will be known as Galileo, and will deploy newer, more accurate systems than GPS which is still using 20-year-old technology.

In July 1999 EU transport ministers asked the European Commission to develop proposals for a system. The plan is for 30 satellites in medium Earth orbit at 23,000km. Development of prototype satellites could start this year, with the first launches in 2004, and the final network of 30 satellites operational in 2008.

There could be 20,000 jobs at stake among service providers. The commission also believes Galileo will improve the safety and efficiency of transport systems. It will also boost industrial competitiveness through stimulating competition and increasing market share for the space and electronics industries which will provide the equipment needed to receive Galileo services.

In the UK, the Federation of the Electronics Industry has led lobbying to bring the government on side. ‘The case could only be made in terms of the services and applications it could provide,’ says FEI consultant for communications systems Keith Wood. Input from potential users was needed. Accordingly, the FEI assembled the UK Satellite Co-ordinating Committee, bringing together the FEI, the Society of British Aerospace Companies, plus the Royal Institute of Navigation, academics and the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

The project has so far been run as a joint initiative between the EU and the European Space Agency. It would be financed as a public-private partnership. Development costs for the three phases are expected to be e3.25bn, and the operating costs from 2008 are estimated at e222m a year. For the deployment phase, e1.5bn is expected to come from industry, and e0.6bn from elsewhere.

So what will it do? Apart from a free, very limited public access service and an encrypted system for government needs, the EU and the RIN separately identified almost 100 paid for services that could be offered.

These include location services, such as enabling mobile phone users to find out where the nearest restaurant or hotel is. Another example could be the automatic ploughing of a field.

European transport ministers delayed the go-ahead from December to next month. They wanted clarifications on how the public/private financing would work, and the management structure to bring in the system by 2008, which they considered too vague.

Developing revenue

Since then the FEI and its allies have been working to finalise a new case. On finance, says public money will inevitably be needed to establish the basic system. ‘We’d like to see the EU putting up money for the satellites. Then private money would be used for developing revenue generating services.’

Detailed discussions have been held with companies such as Astrium and Thales over areas to which they might be prepared to commit finance.

A new organisational structure has also been largely agreed. Ultimately Galileo would be managed by a public sector agency letting concessions and service agreements to private partners. An interim agency would act as a public sector client for the project. It would devise outline concession agreements, define public sector requirements for the system, and come up with a procedure for selecting a public-private partnership to manage the project and negotiate the concession.

Despite the progress made so far, supporters believe a go-ahead at April’s council of European transport ministers is unlikely. But at a meeting earlier this month, members of the Satellite Co-ordinating Committee believe they won the backing in principle of transport minister Lord Macdonald for their ‘minimum outcome’.

This would include a commitment to agree the public sector’s requirements for the system by June and define the public finance requirement by December. The technical risk reduction programme would proceed and the process for selecting a public/private partnership concessionaire would also be decided by June.

‘We’d like a full go-ahead next month,’ says Wood, ‘and [transport commissioner] Loyola de Palacio may try to push it through.

‘But a go-ahead by December now seems most likely and that’s what we’re aiming at. And we feel the DETR is generally supportive.’