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Europe’s Galileo satellite program faces more obstacles

Following the debate in the House of Commons recently, in which it was pointed out – or at least alleged – that the US’s Global Positioning System (including a useful potted history) now underpins the entire US economy, but that nobody could come up with a convincing reason why we need Galileo too.

Owen Paterson, for the Tories, said:

Last week, I had meetings with representatives of Trafficmaster plc, a highly successful company selling navigation services to more than 100,000 vehicles in the UK. Its technical director, Christopher Barnes, said that

“the free to air GPS service is sufficient for vehicle navigation and therefore we are unlikely to be interested in paying (either voluntarily or through a compulsory tax) to use a European service, even if technically it would be better.”

There is extremely limited application for the higher accuracy that Galileo will offer and, in any event, any such advantage will last only until the US deploys Block III Navstar, which promises equivalence.

(That’s an interesting statistic: 100,000 vehicles using TrafficMaster. And that’s only one of the many satnav systems on sale. How much taxable revenue does GPS – a free government data service – generate?)

Now the Guardian notes that Galileo faces further obstacles: in “Funding row pushes GPS system further off course“, it quotes Olivier Houssin, head of the commercial and security operations of French electronics group Thales, saying Europe runs the risk of being left behind in key commercial and military applications by the US, China, Russia and India if it doesn’t back Galileo.

“If Galileo collapses it will be the collapse of the most important EU programme outside the common agricultural policy,” he said in an interview. “Europe is stagnating in space.” EU transport ministers agreed last month to scrap the public private partnership for building and running the 30-satellite Galileo system, which promises greater accuracy than the American GPS, to control air and road traffic. It will also provide enhanced civil security and even help to pilot driverless trains. Mr Houssin dismissed the PPP/PFI as “a false good idea” because Galileo was a “strategic infrastructure” that Europe had to fund publicly. He said the French and Germans were now at loggerheads over how to provide the extra €2.4bn required.

Berlin favours making extra voluntary contributions to the European Space Agency, which is in charge of the overall project, in return for a greater share of the workload. “They want to take over the technological leadership of the programme and centre it around the activities of Astrium [the space arm of EADS] in Munich,” he said.

The French would prefer to see the project financed as an EU investment, with cash sourced from other European commission budgets.

Britain, which still clings to the notion of a PPP/PFI, has refused to give the go-ahead for switching entirely to public funds.

It is very difficult, as Owen Paterson pointed out, to find a way in which Galileo is necessary when GPS III is on the way – unless, that is, its real value lies in military application. But that supposes us not being an ally of the US, which is a very peculiar worldview to start from.

(Thanks to Rob for pointing to the debate.)

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