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UK gov: Galileo must deliver value for money

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Troubled Euro satnav initiative Galileo took something of a beating during a UK Parliamentary debate on Monday.

Galileo was originally planned as a civilian public-private partnership between the European Union and various European contractors. It was thought that heavy private investment might be recouped by charging satnav users fees.

However, in recent months it has become clear that industry has no confidence that anyone will willingly pay for satnav services in a world where the American military-funded Global Positioning System (GPS) can be used for free. In the absence of any foreseeable revenue stream, industrial partners were reluctant to invest, and negotiations between them and the European Commission (the EU bureaucracy) have stalled.

At a meeting of national transport ministers last month it was reportedly agreed that Galileo would proceed as a wholly public-funded project, but detailed arrangements are to wait until autumn.

Arguments in favour of Galileo are varied. It has been suggested that it would offer more precision than GPS; however, GPS is to be upgraded to Block III standard soon and the pendulum will then swing back.

Others, such as Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, believe GPS might suffer a devastating systemic collapse which could lead to accidents in civil aviation. It has been suggested that with Galileo in place, EU nations could cease to maintain legacy air navigation beacons and systems, redeeming some of the cost of running the new satellites.

It does seem very unlikely that anyone would pay for Galileo precision services. A really precise satnav service is only required in a few applications, and differential-GPS can already achieve this.

Systemic collapse of GPS is no doubt theoretically possible, but it has been possible for a long time now. The civil aviation industry certainly isn't willing to spend billions on building a backup system.

The EC bureaucracy has hinted that military customers might pay to use Galileo, but again the EU militaries already have free "p-code" service from the USA so they'd have to be ordered to use Galileo pay services - an order which would amount to public funding anyway.

All this was thrashed out in the British Parliament on Monday. Former transport minister Stephen Ladyman even said he had suggested that Galileo might have to be cancelled at the recent ministerial summit.

New UK transport minister Rosie Winterton stopped short of that, but she did take a tough stance towards the commission, at least for UK consumption.

"Galileo is considered a key community project, but we are clear that it cannot be carried out at any price; it has to be affordable, and it has to be value for money," she said.

"It needs better governance and risk management, open competition and a firm focus on the opportunities for getting the private sector to share the costs and risks."

The private sector has made it clear it isn't up for that. Open competition isn't really an option in the environment of a European publicly-funded project. The EU nations can collectively afford it fairly easily; but it's really hard, short of an almost warlike dispute between EU and USA, to see how Galileo can ever deliver added value to those who will pay for it. ®

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