The Split Personality of Satellite Navigation

By | August 1, 2011 | Government, Via Satellite

According to the Satellite Industry Association’s 2011 State of the Satellite Industry Report, satellite equipment sales are up and consumer GPS hardware is singled out as one of the drivers. What the SIA does not mention is that this commercial industry is built on a non-commercial foundation.

In a press briefing at the Paris Air Show recently it was announced that the European Galileo satellite navigation system would have an additional six satellites added to the currently planned 18, while this is still less than the original 28 satellites, it is progress.

At the same time LightSquared has been wrestling with the issue of its potential interference with GPS. Indeed on the same day that Galileo announced its expansion, a Deere & Co. official said that LightSquared’s latest frequency plan would still “degrade most of our GPS receivers” in their agricultural equipment reducing their ability to support GPS-based precision agriculture.

The success of complaints like Deere & Co’s in slowing or blocking the growth of available wireless spectrum at the same time the FCC is attempting to increase it, shows how important satellite navigation has become. On the hardware front there are increasing amounts of money to be made in making satellite navigation equipment and still more to be made in providing navigation services through this hardware.

In spite of its commercial success, satellite navigation is the only commercial satellite service in which there are no commercial satellites. Indeed attempts to make Galileo even a partially commercial effort failed and according to Wikileaks, Berry Smutny, the former CEO of German satellite company OHB-System, said that Galileo “is a stupid idea that primarily serves French interests.” He attributed the Galileo program to a French desire to have a military asset under their control that would reduce their reliance on the American GPS system.

These systems remind me of the origins of the current Internet where there was tremendous commercial potential in a system built with Department of Defense money for DoD purposes. The Internet was designed to facilitate communications between technical centers and to allow communications in case of a nuclear war. Today, no one sees the Internet as a military system — Google, Facebook, YouTube and Amazon are not military units but they are major users of the Internet.

So how does the satellite navigation industry continue? On one hand there isn’t a problem; U.S. policy no longer envisions the use of Selective Availability to degrade GPS for non-military users in crisis situations, so theoretically GPS can be trusted. In truth, of course, I would not want to be on an airliner using a GPS based automatic landing system without backup. Not because I would expect the DoD to turn GPS off, but because my aircraft would be a secondary use of a system with other priorities. In general, GPS would not necessarily evolve in directions to serve the needs of an actual majority of civilian users.

It is unreasonable to expect the American military to serve commercial rather than military needs, but in the long run a transition to civil or commercial ownership of satellite navigation systems is as inevitable as it was for the Internet. So how will this happen? It is hard to see, Galileo has shown that such systems are still very expensive; LightSquared has shown that there isn’t a lot of spare spectrum around. Where would commercial satellite navigation systems get spectrum? Would the current spectrum be handed over to commercial entities? Would the DoD ever allow such militarily important tools to be controlled by other entities (creating a mirror image of the current situation)? That has happened with the Internet, but with the Internet we can create most of the spectrum we need (i.e. lay more fiber) what can be done with navigation?

In short, satellite navigation is the last place in the space industry where commercial services are, in effect, free riders on non-commercial systems. With Galileo launches beginning in the fall and the Russian GLONASS one launch from system completion, it is possible that the availability of multiple systems will make a difference in the future commercialization of satellite navigation. But, in the long run, satellite navigation must become a civil as well as military asset.

Max Engel is an experienced satellite industry and telecom industry analyst and founder of The North Star Consultancy. He can be reached at

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