US negotiators in Brussels expect to reach agreement with the European Union within a week regarding cooperative use of the American Global Positioning System (GPS) and the EU's proposed Galileo sat-nav constellations.
Reuters reports that the American plan is for GPS and Galileo satellites to employ the same frequencies, making it simple for a single receiver to make use of both systems simultaneously.
The wire service quoted Raymond Clore of the US State Department as saying that "the market probably will drive dual-use receivers. We think probably that single GPS-specific, or Galileo-specific receivers...will phase out in time".
With 30 GPS spacecraft already in orbit, and potentially 30 more Galileo birds, a dual-system satnav would seldom have trouble getting a fix even in difficult circumstances.
"It just doesn't make sense to limit yourself to just one system," said Clore.
That's true for most civilian users, provided there's no price increase involved; and there needn't be. Even under original plans for Galileo, which envisaged a lot of people paying to use it, there was to be a basic free service, roughly equivalent to current civilian GPS.
Sixty sats instead of 30 would provide a useful enhancement for ordinary users in "urban canyons" or other tricky spots, though it's pretty diffcult to say that this would really be worth the billions of taxpayers' money which will probably meet the Galileo bills. There should also be an increase in accuracy, but this is coming anyway courtesy of the US taxpayer as GPS upgrades to Block III.
Reuters reported that the European Commission (EC), the hardcore permanent bureaucracy at Brussels, confirmed that an American offer had been tabled "but could not say" when or if it might be agreed.
Of the EC's concerns over Galileo - much though it is described as a purely civilian system - is that it be fully independent of US policy and technology. The EC contends that sat nav is becoming a vital piece of civilian infrastructure, and that Europeans should not rely on American goodwill to maintain it.
It's rather unlikely that America would ever choose to deny sat nav service to ordinary Europeans, and indeed it has said as much publicly. But America might well degrade, encrypt, or cut off service in a military context such as a warzone. Modern military action genuinely is becoming dependent on sat nav to a substantial degree - whatever one thinks of the civilian applications and their importance.
Many in the EC probably believe Europe should be able to carry out military action independent of America. While this kind of talk is always avoided in the context of Galileo, the EC's primary concern is that Galileo be able to operate no matter what America does; not that Galileo/GPS dual receivers be easy to build and use.
We'll have to wait and see if the US delegation's confidence is justified. ®