13 November 2006 – Until now, experts believed that China’s “Beidou” navigation system – a 35-satellite constellation – would only be used by its armed forces. This explained China’s decision to invest €200 million (USD 257 million) in Europe’s €2.5 billion (USD 3.2 billion) Galileo programme.
But things appear to have changed recently in Beijing. On 2 November, the country’s official news agency Xinhua reported that Beidou would, from 2008, begin providing an “open” level of service, with 10-metre accuracy, in addition to its “authorised”, encrypted military service.
Precisely how open this 10-metre service will be, remains unclear, but the Xinhua report implied that it would be available free to all Chinese citizens and to other countries whose governments strike a deal to use the signal in satellite navigation devices.
China’s decision to expand the functionality of its satellite navigation network could undermine the economics of Europe’s nascent Galileo system, according to sources close to the project. If this is true, it could be a big problem for the Galileo consortium, which had hoped to recoup part of its €2.5 billion (USD 3.2 billion) investment in Galileo by selling receivers and commercial signal subscriptions in China.
“But if Beidou offers a free non-military service inside China then that idea goes out of the window,” says a source close to the Galileo project, who spoke on condition of anonymity, due to the geopolitical sensitivity of the issue.
It is not clear whether there are sufficient frequencies for Beidou to be used globally. But new agreements may be needed to ensure receivers are compatible with all three navigation standards: Galileo, the US-run Global Positioning System, and Beidou. “We would have to have a complete reworking of the cooperative agreements that the Galileo consortium has struck with China,” the source adds.
It does not look good for Galileo. Analysts in the US think Beidou’s first two geostationary satellites may already be used for commercial purposes. “The People’s Liberation Army is using the system, but there have been some interesting local press reports out of China recently saying that some private companies have been pressured into using Beidou too,” says Dean Cheng of the CNA Corporation, a think tank in Alexandria, Virginia, US.
“The government is trying to work out how to make money from the system,” he told New Scientist. “So a freight firm, for instance, might be persuaded to use Beidou if it wants a trucking contract, say.”
Cheng believes a number of factors are fuelling China’s move to a domestic satellite navigation network – its waning influence as Galileo moves into a commercial deployment phase, worries about how much say China will have on the way the Galileo signal is coded, and ‘workshare’ issues: emerging Sino-European arguments over, for instance, satellite launch contracts.
Officially, however, the European Commission (EC) says it does not expect China’s plan to impact on Galileo. “The EU’s initiative on Galileo has spurred many nations to consider new satellite navigation initiatives,” says Michele Cercone, EC spokesperson for satellite navigation issues. “In the developing global satellite navigation market there will be place for all these initiatives. We are confident that Galileo will be able to win its rightful place.”