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EU funding to save Galileo?

Could be more a strategic issue than a commercial one

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Stalled Euro sat-nav project Galileo could be set to receive more extensive backing from the European Union (EU) in order to get it moving again.

Galileo was supposed to be more than half funded by private investors, principally AENA, Alcatel, EADS, Finmeccanica, Hispasat, Inmarsat, TeleOp, and Thales. The idea was that the new satellite constellation, in addition to a basic free service, would offer paid options which would allow these backers to recoup their money.

But, as already reported by El Reg, when it came time to start signing serious cheques, the EU's corporate partners didn't feel able to proceed.

The first big problem with selling satellite location services is that the US Defense Department already offers a pretty good free service from its Global Positioning System (GPS) birds, which is difficult to compete with.

Galileo could be more accurate than basic GPS, and in time might deliver better coverage in difficult locations such as so-called "urban canyons" where much of the sky is blocked out.

But there are ways to squeeze improved accuracy out of GPS already, which don't necessarily involve paying a large fee. Furthermore, the latest GPS receivers seem able to pull in signals from some very difficult locations indeed - perhaps even from between a mobile phone's battery and circuit board.

On top of this, restricting access to sat-nav services is very difficult, perhaps even worse than implementing effective DRM on music and video. Tellingly, the US military gave up even trying to do so with GPS some time back. In another indication of difficulties ahead, the encryption on Galileo test platforms was cracked as soon as they were put into orbit.

The encryption on operational Galileo birds would no doubt be tougher, but paying customers will have to have access - which means that cracks will be possible. Also, it will always be possible for a crypto attacker to know his true location by other means, and thus to have a good idea what an encrypted Galileo feed actually says. This makes his job a lot easier.

Unsurprisingly, with a possibly limited user base from whom it could be difficult to collect any fees, Galileo's private backers have developed very chilly feet and are essentially unwilling to put big money into building and orbiting the satellites. As a result, the project effectively hit the buffers last year.

The man primarily responsible for getting it going again is Wolfgang Tiefensee, the German transport minster - Germany being the current holder of the EU presidency.

"There will be greater participation by the public sector in the construction phase of the system," he said yesterday, according to AFP. Reportedly, the EU will now fund the building of Galileo, but still hopes that the private sector will shoulder the running costs - or take responsibility for the "exploitation phase"" as Mr Tiefensee put it. EU officials are thought to estimate the additional cost to European taxpayers at €2bn, on top of the already-planned €1.5bn public bill.

Given the presence of GPS, there will be those who don't see Galileo as a good way for Europeans to spend €3.5bn or more of their tax money. But this group won't include supporters of the European aerospace industry; nor, perhaps, those who would like the EU to be able to undertake worldwide military action against Washington's wishes. GPS can be switched off over any region the US government chooses, which would not only paralyse local minicabs, airliners, cargo ships, etc - assuming there were any - but would make many kinds of modern military action very difficult or impossible.

It might even be that some in Brussels are worried about a future US president - angered, perhaps, by European opposition to his foreign policies - turning off GPS over Europe itself, which would be economically devastating even today; let alone in future once sat-nav biz services have become truly ubiquitous.

EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot is due to present a list of alternatives for the struggling project on 16 May. These could include totally taking over Galileo, more EU money for the project, or abandoning it altogether, officials have said.

Against the current world picture, it's difficult to see the EU tamely giving up a chance to escape the US satnav headlock. ®

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