The transport ministers of the European Union nations managed to reach agreement regarding the Galileo sat nav project on Friday, following Byzantine porkbarrel manoeuvres and an eleventh-hour spanner in the works from Spain. Galileo is now fully funded and can move forward.
The controversial multibillion-euro plan to place in orbit a 30 sat worldwide navigation system like the existing American GPS has been beset by funding wrangles for much of 2007. Industrial partners who were supposed to stump up €2.4bn of the construction cost essentially refused to do so early in the year, citing concerns over revenue. It was feared that users unwilling to pay subscription fees would simply avail themselves of free services offered by the US.
Following this setback, the European Commission (EC) advanced a plan to make up the shortfall from unspent farm subsidies which were already in the Brussels coffers. This cash would normally have reverted to donor nations, principally the UK, Germany, and Holland.
Unsurprisingly, these countries initially formed a united front against the EC plan. However, in recent weeks the UK fell into line, despite the fact the UK parliamentary transport committee expressed strong reservations as to whether Galileo was worthwhile.
The UK volte-face was explained by the government as being an attempt to wrongfoot other unspecified nations (Germany) who were offering to drop their opposition in exchange for being given lucrative sat-building contracts that might otherwise have gone to UK firms. The Netherlands also signed up to the EC plan, perhaps for similar reasons.
Despite having been preemptively stabbed in the back by former allies, the Germans nonetheless won substantial amounts of their own taxpayers' pork back in exchange for coming into the fold at last.
Then, in a last-minute surprise dustup, Spain suddenly demanded that it be given a ground control station, even though the draft plans called for only two - in Italy and Germany. The Spaniards apparently felt that the Italian station should have been theirs.
(The fact that Italy chose recently to begin construction before funding approval may now be easier to understand.)
When the vote was held on Friday, the Spanish were overruled 26-1. In later discussions, they were persuaded to drop their objections with the suggestion that they could have a fully-fledged (and superfluous) ground station if they paid for it themselves. This sop to the injured Spanish national pride was seemingly acceptable, and the EU is now unanimously behind the EC plan.
Jacques Barrot, EC transport commissioner, said Europe will now "have its own satellite navigation system by 2013". At the moment, just one sat is in orbit, and it isn't an operational one - rather, its mission is to keep hold of the spectrum slots that Galileo will need.
Galileo and GPS have an agreed set of operating protocols for spacecraft to be orbited in future, meaning that it will not be difficult to make receivers which can use both sets of satellites and achieve excellent performance.
However, chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm have characterised the chosen methods as gold-plated, focusing on unnecessary levels of precision and raising the consumer unit price. ®