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Common Ground: Paradise Lost–Is There A Serpent In The GPS Garden?

By | December 1, 2002

      by Richard DalBello

      Perhaps it’s just human nature. Put us in the Garden of Eden and before long we’ll be reaching for the Forbidden Fruit.

      Many in the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) community would argue that today’s environment is about as close to paradise as we are likely to get. For more than 20 years, the U.S. government has been funding, perfecting and offering free to the world the wondrous technology of GPS. The U.S. Commerce Department estimates that, in 2002, commercial global revenues from GPS equipment will exceed $9 billion. GPS technology has improved business productivity in areas including transportation, farming, resource management and service delivery; has enhanced public safety by revolutionizing emergency services and disaster relief; and will likely form the backbone of the next-generation global air traffic management system. GPS also contributes to critical scientific objectives in weather forecasting, earthquake prediction, hazardous waste monitoring and environmental protection. And, if all that were not enough, the precise timing signal produced as a byproduct of the GPS satellites is used to synchronize communication networks, manage power grids and authenticate electronic transactions around the world.

      So where is the serpent in this garden? As far as the U.S. government is concerned, it is the Galileo Program, a $3.5 billion European fee-for-service proposal that is complicating transatlantic trade and defense relations.

      Given the centrality of transportation infrastructure to any advanced economy, many nations have considered, and in some cases implemented, terrestrial and space-based augmentations to GPS. Galileo, however, like the under-funded and now failing Soviet Glonass system, is a satellite navigation network that could function independently of GPS. The first U.S. response was to dismiss the Galileo project outright. How could anyone hope to charge for something that was already offered globally for free? Admittedly, the early Galileo business case was regarded, even in Europe, with considerable skepticism. Nonetheless, the lack of U.S. support did not dampen European ardor for this program, particularly after additional research suggested the program could yield tens of billions of euros and tens of thousand of jobs. The U.S. government public statements then began to shift to the polite diplomatic language of opposition. Not surprisingly, strong official U.S. objections only worked to strengthen European resolve.

      Europe’s determination is rooted in a common desire for technological and economic autonomy from the United States. Galileo is a clear statement that Europe is unwilling to accept–in the colorful words of French President Jacques Chirac–“vassal status.” It is inconceivable, argue many in Europe, that such a critical piece of their transportation infrastructure could remain in the hands of another country. Equally important is the belief that the economic and employment benefits of this new technology will never be fully captured unless Europe is involved in satellite and ground system development. Finally, some believed that a civil navigation system freed from the constraints of military concerns and focused exclusively on emerging civilian markets could be more creative and ultimately more responsive to the rapidly changing needs of industry.

      The U.S. objections to Galileo are numerous. The U.S. military chafes at the potentially large Galileo expenditures at a time when Europe is failing to fund its common defense commitments within NATO. The fact that Europe has chosen a signal structure that could interfere with GPS is cause for additional concern. Most troubling to some is the proposed Galileo signal structure would make it both difficult and costly for the U.S. and NATO to deny satellite navigation services in a crisis or conflict. Indeed, some have estimated that the technical response occasioned by Galileo will cost the United States as much as the program itself. Finally, the U.S. fears that Europe, having committed to an economically unsupportable program, will be forced to impose Galileo utilization policies and tariffs designed to sustain the program when market forces fail to do so.

      These tremendous disagreements notwithstanding, the parties are engaged in a halting, slow-motion dialog on the future. The U.S. has made it clear that it wants Europe to pay more attention to the military and security implications of Galileo. Specifically, the United States wishes to retain the DoD/NATO ability to deny the signal in crisis and to ensure controls on technology transfer and proliferation. On the trade side, the United States wants Europe to make a “most favored nation-like” commitment to prevent discrimination in the Galileo marketplace. Such a commitment would go beyond current WTO obligations, and would work to ensure that new European regulations did not disadvantage U.S. manufacturers and service providers. Europe, for its part, has remained mostly in listening mode, focusing its energies on the complex task of organizing an expensive and highly complex program among the European states and between existing transnational entities.

      Will the Galileo initiative succeed and transform itself into something similar to the global commercial satellite industry? Or, will commercial satellite navigation initiatives fail, as many predict, ensuring a continued government role? Will users flourish under private or quasi-private operation? Or, are we living today in the golden age of satellite navigation? No doubt, historically strong ties will ensure these issues are ultimately resolved, but for now, it seems we are in for a season of sturm und drang as powerful actors on both sides of the Atlantic prepare to battle over deeply held principles.

      Richard DalBello is the executive director of the Satellite Industry Association. His e-mail is

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