GPS Competition Is Catching Up

May 4, 2012: The first two European Union (EU) Galileo navigation satellites became operational last month. This is another GPS type system, competing with the original American GPS and the newly activated Russian GLONASS. A Russian Soyuz rocket was launched from the EU base in South America (French Guiana) which is near the equator (making it easier to achieve certain orbits) last October to put the two Galileo satellites in orbit. Two more Galileo satellites will go up later this year. That is the minimum number of satellites needed to provide three-dimensional location information. These four birds will be used to validate the technology. All 30 Galileo satellites are expected to be operational by the end of the decade.

Then there is China, with its own GPS system. China has ten of 35 Beidou (“Compass”) navigation satellites. This is sufficient to provide GPS type service for all of China. By the end of the decade all 35 satellites will be up and the entire planet will have access to Beidou. It was four years ago that China decided to expand its original Beidou 1 satellite navigation system to cover the entire planet and compete with GPS, Galileo, and Glonass. China is using the experience from this earlier Beidou 1 network to build a world-wide “Beidou 2″ system over the next decade.

The success of the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system has generated all this competition. But so far these other efforts have found the work much more difficult than expected. A European consortium went forward with Galileo despite growing costs and technical problems. Initially, Galileo was to be funded with privatemoney. But the costs climbed beyond the most optimistic estimates of future income, so now Galileo is being paid for with tax dollars, as was GPS and the competing Russian and Chinese systems.

Galileo came about because the Europeans didn’t like being dependent on an American system and didn’t believe the Russians would be able to keep their GLONASS system viable. If Galileo becomes operational the European nations will pay for it but anyone can use it. Dual signal (GPS and Galileo) receivers won’t cost much more (maybe 20 percent more) than GPS receivers do. Having two separate sets of signals makes for more reliable and accurate receivers. Also, the way Galileo is being set up, it will provide improved reliability in higher latitudes and in built up areas.

Russia’s answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) shortly after the Cold War ended (1995). But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system meant launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, the Russian economy recovered and provided funds for a series of launches in 2003, that increased the number of active satellites to twelve, and that went to 18 by the end of 2007. Russia had 24 GLONASS satellites in orbit by 2011, and plans to have the system fully operational this year and be a real competitor for GPS.

The money for GLONASS is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are actually combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia will have to put billions of dollars into GLONASS over the next few years to get the system fully operational, and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network.

The Chinese Compass network plans to incorporate the best features of the GLONASS and Galileo systems, as well as items planned for the next generation GPS satellites. With all that no one has found a way to make a buck off a network of navigation satellites. At least not directly. There are plenty of ideas but no one has yet turned any of those ideas into cash. Moreover, there are problems between Beidou, Galileo and Glonass, over who should use what frequencies first. Since GPS got into service first no one is contesting the frequencies GPS uses. But the three other players have some problems.