Galileo flap just another day in the satellite business

14 Jun 2007
00:00

The commercial satellite industry has always had two distinct (though not insurmountable) disadvantages working against it - extra-long design/deployment cycles, and good old fashioned politics. Which is why the recent funding crisis for the EU's Galileo project is no real surprise to anyone.

Unable to pull together private funding for the planned alternative to the US GPS system - reportedly due to the escalating price tag and bickering over who will ultimately be responsible for running the satellite network - EU ministers have had little choice but to seek public funding instead.

While Galileo isn't in any serious danger of being scrapped - at least for now - the funding dilemma has raised awareness of the realities and risks of developing a major satellite project in a fast-evolving world.

Galileo has always had a political edge to it, but most govt-sponsored satellite projects do. The problem may indeed be a case of too many cooks, etc. Look at Russia's GLONASS upgrade, which sat on the back burner for years due to lack of funds and proper oversight, but is on track to have enough satellites up and running to cover all of Russia before Q3 this year, and could have global coverage by 2011 - a year before Galileo is now expected to be fully operational. Meanwhile, European Parliament member Vladimir Remek has expressed concerns that a similar system planned by China could also beat Galileo to the punch.

Note that the GLONASS and China systems have something in common with the US GPS system: they're being deployed by one government. I don't know if that makes them better systems, but it does suggest that their board meetings are considerably streamlined.

There's still the commercial benefits of a competing system like Galileo. On the other hand, just as Iridium's killer app was hobbled by the unexpectedly fast evolution of terrestrial mobile, the location-based services market hasn't been idle since Galileo first came off the drawing board.

Admittedly, Galileo may not be facing the exact same proposition of business opportunities drying up. Location-based and location-aware services are going to be a major force in new mobile apps in the next few years. But even there, technology is advancing to make location (at least in urban areas where GPS reception can be tricky) more of a street-level process.

One example is the growing trend of mobile phones being tapped by adverts and displays equipped with Bluetooth transmitters.

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