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Will NAVIC be a Commercial Success?

The answer is – No. The reason is – volume. The success of GPS which Navic seeks to replace is due to the enormous volumes of devices that use the service. Commercially the biggest users are the positioning, navigation and location industries. Today every smartphone has a GPS chip inbuilt that provides location and navigation services free of cost via Google Maps. Add to this killer apps like Augmented Reality and you have a very powerful and useful handheld device.

Recognising this all other global systems like Glonass, GALILEO and Beidou operate on L1 and L2 frequencies so that most GPS receivers can be tweaked to work off these systems as well. The purpose of two frequencies is to correct for ionospheric and tropospheric errors. While L2 is solely meant for US Defence use, considering the popularity of civilian usage, the new GPS satellites use L5 which is in the aeronautic communications band for aviation safety services, to enable the same correction. In fact there is a L2C band for civilian use as well.

Navic, being a latecomer, could not get allocations in the L1 and L2 bands but were allocated L5 and S bands. herein lies the problem. While most modern civilian receivers will use L1, L2C and L5, they can only receive the Navic L5 signals but not the S band signal. Further, S band is cleared for RDSS (RNSS is a subset) only for Region 3 (Asia and Oceania) by ITU. It is for secondary use in region1 (Europe and Africa). This means that the S band cannot be globally used.

There are other issues. The S band receiver and antenna is quite different from the L band receiver and antenna. While it is possible to tweak the antenna for both L1 and S band use by compromising on the L1 signal, L5 is a lower frequency than L1 and therefore there will be greater problems. While ISRO has overcome these issues by developing a suitable receiver and antenna combination, the question is will the smartphone industry pick this up?

Firstly, the relatively low volumes of Indian users will not allow for economies of scale. Secondly, Indian users will need to have a separate global smartphone when they go abroad. However, it must be said that the S band antenna can be used both for Navic and S band voice and data communications. Another factor is that ionospheric and tropospheric correction is much better with the L5 and S band combination. Therefore, if in the future ITU opens up the S band globally, then there is a possibility of such smartphones becoming globally viable and not just restricted to the Indian market.

However, Navic is not a non-starter. Consider the background to the evolution of Navic. According to the media, in 1999 when the Kargil war was at its height the Government of India requested for access to GPS data but was turned down by the US. This appears to be silly because with SA removed accuracy of 10m was available any way. However, for better than 10m India would need the Precision data which was exclusively for the US Defence forces. Was this requested? We do not know but it was clear to India that modern warfare including missile control would need precision data. That is the real driver behind Navic.

It is therefore meaningless to discuss the commercialisation of Navic. In future, Navic will become the workhorse for the Defence forces and for short and medium range missiles. In the civilian arena, Navic will be very useful for precision surveys as well as for mobile asset tracking and management. Already use for unmanned level crossing safety has been demonstrated using Navic. What needs to be done is to accelerate these applications. If done efficiently, Navic will pay for itself.

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