Thursday, December 29, 2005

It's better because, well, because--it's European!

The Washington Post ran an article this morning on the European Space Agency's launch of the first satellite for the Galileo navigation system. The system is intended to "break the U.S. monopoly on space-based networks", according to the article.

While I don't particularly care if the EU chooses to deploy its own global positioning satellites, I do have a couple of problems with the story. The first problem I have is with the tone of the article, which, typical of the Post, makes its best effort to portray America in a bad light.

The second problem I have is with the EU's apparent motivation behind deploying their own GPS constellation. The EU is embarking on a project estimated at $4.5 billion, and it appears to be driven more by pride than by necessity.

In the first paragraph, the Post incorrectly uses the term "monopoly" to describe the existing American GPS service. While it's true that the U.S. is currently the sole provider of GPS signals, the whole truth proves there's nothing sinister about our "monopoly".

The U.S. military conceived, funded and deployed the current GPS system for military applications, then later made the system open and available, free of charge, to consumers. Not just U.S. consumers, but everyone on the planet. As a result, an entire industry developed worldwide around providing GPS-enabled products to consumers. This not only resulted in huge added convenience and safety to GPS users, but resulted in global economic benefit by the creation of jobs in the new consumer GPS industry. All courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers.

The article goes on to describe advantages Galileo will have over the current GPS system:
  • Improved accuracy
  • EU civilian control
  • Directions to points of interest
  • Time-keeping capability
These purported advantages bear further scrutiny.

Improved accuracy: The EU claims that Galileo will provide accuracy to within one meter (about 3 feet). This is, indeed, a very good level of accuracy. The current GPS system generally provides a level of accuracy of about 16 feet, but with wide-area augmentation service (WAAS), most GPS receivers, including my own, can achieve accuracy to about two meters (about six feet). I don't know about you, but if my GPS receiver gets me to within six feet (or even 16 feet) of my destination, I can generally find it with my own two eyes.

EU civilian control: The EU complains that the U.S. warns that it may shut down GPS in the event of national emergency. The article goes on to say that the EU would also cut off service in the case of direst emergency. The EU won't say what constitutes "direst emergency".

Directions to points of interest: The article states that Galileo will be able to direct users to places like restaurants, hotels, hospitals and parks. What the article doesn't say is that this is not a function of the satellites, but rather the device that receives the satellite's signals, and is already available in a GPS device designed to provide that information. As a constant traveller, I've used my GPS device to direct me to the nearest hotel, gas station, or restaurant of a given type.

Time-keeping capability: Finally, the article states that Galileo will provide time signals accurate to "a few hundred millionths of a second per day". I'm not sure to what degree of accuracy the existing GPS system provides time signals, but suffice it to say that it's absurdly accurate. Time keeping is critical to positional accuracy in GPS, and the GPS units benefit by receiving these time signals.

This all begs the question of why the EU feels compelled to deploy Galileo. Europeans, along with everyone else in the world, already enjoy the benefits of GPS, without having born the cost of deploying the system. They'll now be forced to fund, with their taxes, the cost of deploying a 30 satellite constellation
simply because they're too proud to rely on a service provided free of charge by us ugly Americans.

1 comment:

Craig H said...

Eric,
Great post on your part and you are right on every point. I work in the GPS community out here in California.

The Galileo program is indeed strictly a 'pride' issue. The IIR-M and IIF Satellites will be up soon enough improving performance numbers that will meet or exceed Galileo's.

I blogged about the Galileo program back in March...
http://redsatellites.blogspot.com/2005/03/euroff-and-almost-running.html