Flanked by European Commission Vice President Loyola de Palacio and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell signed a broad GPS-Galileo cooperation agreement at a June 2004 U.S-E.U. Summit in Ireland.  (Source: U.S. Embassy Dublin)

When fully operational in 2012, the EU's Galileo system will include 30 satellites.  (Source: European Space Agency)
Closer cooperation between the EU and U.S. could bring about more accurate satellite navigation systems -- but at a cost

A pending agreement to synchronize the radio signals used by the United States' GPS satellite navigation system and Galileo -- its European counterpart -- is "pretty much in the bag," waiting only for official signatures to finalize the deal, according to a source close to the effort. The U.S. government official, who requested anonymity in keeping with department policy, added that the deal should be sealed this week. "It's just a matter of bureaucratics," he said.

The new agreement builds on an existing relationship between the United States and the European Commission and carries on in the same spirit of cooperation between the two government entities, the source said. The existing Agreement on the Promotion, Provision, and Use of Galileo and GPS Satellite-Based Navigation Systems and Related Applications was signed by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004.

The current agreement under consideration calls for the GPS and Galileo systems to commit to common open signal modulation architecture, relying on the same multiplex binary offset carrier, or MBOC. The U.S. official cited a number of potential benefits that may result from the shared communications plan, including simplifying the design and manufacturing of dual-system navigation devices.

Encouraging manufacturers and consumer to adopt Galileo could lend some needed support to the EU's troubled aerospace program. The $4.9 billion European project, originally designed as an alternative to the U.S.-operated Global Positioning System (GPS), has been plagued by delays, software glitches, and bickering among its eight commercial sponsors.

So far, the Galileo project has launched only one satellite, a test vehicle that is not expected to be an active part of the European Union's planned fleet of 30 navigation satellites. Linking Galileo with the existing 30-satellite GPS system would provide a full array of 60 navigational satellites, when Galileo is fully operational. Current plans call for Galileo to be ready for commercial use by 2012, at the earliest.

Doubling the number of satellites could significantly boost performance of both systems in areas where reception is often weak, such as in "urban canyons," according to the U.S. government source.

The greater number of spacecraft in the combined positioning system may also help to achieve a major increase in accuracy. Because of the nature of satellite navigation, which relies on the ability to triangulate distances from multiple geostationary satellites, the availability of so many interoperable satellites could have a huge impact on the geometry needed to fix the locations of objects here on Earth.

The U.S. government official also told DailyTech about a recent demonstration in Hungary of a surveying device capable of receiving signals from eight GPS satellites and five satellites in the Russian GLONASS navigation system. The device reportedly had the ability to determine its location to within a few centimeters. According to the U.S. State Department, the existing GPS system offers maximum accuracy to within 0.71 meters, assuming optimum receiver strength and atmospheric conditions.

While centimeter-scale accuracy could fuel new professional and industrial uses for satellite navigation devices, it could also make it easier for mobile phone manufacturers to integrate navigation features into their handsets. Speaking at a GPS industry gathering last December, SiRF founder Kanwar Chadha said that the ability to "see" more satellites would help compensate for the generally poor reception capabilities of current GPS antennas in navigation-enabld cell phones. SiRF is a provider of GPS semiconductors and software.

U.S. GPS device companies contacted by DailyTech said it was still too early to determine whether the expanded interoperability of GPS and Galileo navigation systems will provide additional impetus for the consumer navigation market. A spokesman for consumer navigation device maker Delphi said in an e-mail that technical experts there feel that "the specific business model for Galileo is still very much up in the air.  They predict that a fully functional system is still about 3 years off, so European consumers will still be on the main GPS constellation up until then."

Like GPS, use of the Galileo system will be free for consumers. However, concerns have been raised regarding the possibility of high royalty fees to be imposed on manufacturers of Galileo-capable devices. In a 2004 study commissioned by the EU, the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers recommended that the EU limit itself to a 5% royalty on Galileo chipsets (PDF), or risk eroding the market. In addition, commercial, military and even civil aviation applications for Galileo satellite navigation data are expected to be fee-based, according to a March 2007 study (PDF) published by The French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

While the motive of generating high profits is key to keeping European development partners from deserting the Galileo project before its completion, high costs could have a chilling effect on adoption of Galileo-based products and services, the two studies concluded.

"The commercial case for establishing Galileo alongside GPS is that users will be willing to pay for superior services, and ... a terminal that can provide better coverage and reliability by receiving both signals," the Price Waterhouse Coopers report stated. "But this will only be the case if cost differentials for combined access to Galileo and GPS services are small."

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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