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China’s BeiDou gives Iran what US would not

The United States proposes, China disposes. As the custodian of GPS technology, the US had prohibited Iran from accessing high-precision services. So, Iran has gone ahead and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China to use BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) technology. Under the memorandum, China will establish BeiDou ground stations in Iran, and Iran Electronics Industries (IEI) will found a center for space data collection.

Essentially, Iran will now be able to access high-precision services, and develop its own navigation technology. What is also interesting to note is that unlike GPS, the BeiDou covers all blind spots across the country. Iran has been known to push for widening the use of satellite technology in recent years as a way to cover more remote regions in the country's south and east, which are often not covered by regular services. Moreover, the US is known to often limit or stop GPS services for military and security reasons.

China built the BeiDou global navigation and positioning network to reduce its own dependence on GPS technology. Another reason behind China promoting BeiDou is that the market for satellite navigation products and services in the country is estimated to reach around $65 billion by 2020. China is hoping that BeiDou would capture 70 to 80% share of that market.

The first BeiDou satellite was not launched until 2000. And in a span of 15 years, China has a regional network in place, with a total of 20 navigation satellites in orbit. The BDS global network is on track to be completed by 2020. It will have 35 satellites, including 27 medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites. Shen Jun, the chief scientist of Beidou Navigation Science and Technology Corporation, has asserted in the past that BeiDou has several unique features that would give it an upper-hand over GPS. These include a short message service and more satellites available for civilian purposes. The positioning accuracy of Beidou for civilian use is 10 meters or better, with timing accuracy of 20 nanoseconds, and velocity accuracy of 0.2 meters per second.

In the Asia-Pacific region, BeiDou is already being used by several countries, including Laos, Korea, Pakistan and Thailand. It would be interesting to see what kind of customer base China is able to build by the time it reaches full-scale global coverage in 2020.