Brussels and the U.S. have so far failed to reach a deal on the frequencies planned for Galileo, an EU competitor to the GPS satellite navigation system. An American official warns the situation could harm relations.
Galileo will provide satellite navigation services starting in 2008.
Anything that has to do with navigation, positioning or satellite communications is currently conducted worldwide using one system: GPS or the "global positioning system," an American constellation of satellites that provides pin-point tracking anywhere on the planet. It's a monopoly that many in Europe would like to see disappear.
"Today we have a situation where the U.S. system exists, GPS, which functions and has been in orbit since 1978," said Martin Ripple of the European aerospace and space firm EADS. "They have a 25-year head start."
A new player
Officials in Brussels and leaders across Europe would like to break that monopoly. With a planned satellite navigation system called Galileo, the European Union is seeking to compete by beating the American standard for accuracy and customer service.
The problem is that GPS is controlled by the U.S. military, and its signal can be scrambled during crises or wars in order to provide more secure military usage, leaving car drivers or mobile telephone users in the lurch. As a largely civilian undertaking, Galileo could, therefore benefit both Europe and the United States.
GPS navigation device
"Position fixing allows both individual soldiers and entire troops to position themselves, to orient themselves, to navigate terrain," said Ripple. "For our Bundeswehr (German military) soldiers in Afghanistan, finding their way around or navigating with maps would be extremely difficult. Today, GPS plays a major part."
But Washington now wants to revert to a special military GPS system so that missiles and intelligent bombs can attack with meter-perfect accuracy. To make that happen, the U.S. is seeking additional frequencies that would interfere with the frequencies Europe has claimed for Galileo. This overlap has created tensions between Washington and Brussels.
Negotiations earlier this week in Washington between EU and White House officials broke down on Sunday without any deal. Europe is sticking to its plan to use the so-called Binary Offset Carrier structure (or 1.5), which it says would provide customers with greater accuracy than the U.S. proposed BOC 1.1 infrastructure. U.S. officials for their part have argued that there is no qualitative difference between the two systems except that there is a 50 percent greater chance the 1.5 standard would interfere with the U.S. military signal called "M Code."
Washington is also concerned about the fact that Galileo would be less susceptible to interference than GPS while also providing a more precise signal. Current Galileo specifications call for it to provide precision to within one meter. But GPS only provides a signal with 20 meter accuracy.
Last month, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charles Ries, warned that if Europe doesn't support the U.S. plan, it could harm U.S. and NATO security interests, which he said would be "highly corrosive to the transatlantic relationship."
European officials are nonetheless hopeful they can conclude a deal with Washington by March 8, when the EU transport ministers are next scheduled to meet.
Palacio: We need precision
Earlier this month, EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio told reporters that the EU has already made a handful of concessions to the U.S. in recent talks. However, she said, "the European Union intends to have the best possible civil system in the form of Galileo. Some of the civilian service applications offered by the system require great precision, such as applications in an urban environment, emergency calls using the European number 112, the guidance of aircraft and guidance assistance for the blind. They require the choice of a very high-performance signal, which will guarantee Galileo's commercial success."
After it begins service in 2008, EU officials expect Galileo to generate as much as €9 billion ($11 billion) a year in revenues and create 100,000 jobs.