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Galileo spacecraft illustration
Galileo was originally going to pay for itself by providing a number of for-fee services, but those plans are looking more dubious. (credit: ESA)

Galileo to Europe’s taxpayers: I will survive!

In Toulouse they are probably belting out Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 hit song “I will survive!” as they try and finish work on the first “real” satellite in the Galileo satellite navigation constellation. As the project’s in service date is pushed further and further into the future and the cost of the program begins to rise, Europe’s aerospace industry is getting more than a little nervous. They were expected to pick up most of the bill for building and operating the system while Europe’s governments were going to simply pay to help get things started.

It’s not working out that way. Leaving aside the predictable cost overruns, the business case is just not there. The calculations were based on some very shaky premises, including the idea that Galileo’s precision and reliability would be so valuable and unique that users would be willing to pay for it even if they could get GPS for free. It turns out that by the time the EU has a fully functioning constellation the US will most likely have a good bit of the GPS 3 system up and running with capabilities equal to those of the European system.

The Galileo business case was based on some very shaky premises, including the idea that Galileo’s precision and reliability would be so valuable and unique that users would be willing to pay for it even if they could get GPS for free.

Meanwhile, various ground- and space-based GPS augmentation systems are already providing services that come close to those promised by Galileo. The story bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the Iridium fiasco of the late 1990s. The Iridium consortium, including industry giant Motorola, was going to revolutionize personal communications with a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). Unfortunately it took them so long to build and launch the system that by the time it was ready the world had already been equipped with pervasive terrestrial cellular phone systems that cost a fraction of what Iridium was charging. Thanks to the wonders of US bankruptcy laws, Iridium survives as a new company that sells communications services to the US military and others for a profit. The best thing that can be said for the original plan is that at least it didn’t depend on the US taxpayers.

Positioning technology is already moving beyond the European constellation and it is an open question whether Galileo’s supposedly more accurate timing system will in fact be better than the US one. The one element of the business case that had the greatest promise for making the whole project profitable was so-called “road pricing”. This is the idea that, in order to fight anthropomorphic global warming, all European cars and trucks would be obliged to carry a Galileo-based on board device that would charge drivers by how much and when they used their vehicles and on what roads. Such a system, using augmented GPS, is already in limited use in Germany.

What is killing the concept of any sort of road pricing scheme based on satellite navigation is the existence of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. It is much cheaper to put RFID chips into a car’s license plate and install scanners along the sides of the roads than it would be to design, build, and install a satellite-based system. As more governments and businesses realize this, Galileo’s profit picture worsens.

Another part of the Galileo scheme that the system’s proponents claimed was unique was the so-called “safety of life” guarantee. Those who subscribed to this service would be promised that the service would always be available and that they could safely bet their lives, and the lives of their customers, on the signals, 24/7/365. This was to be the main argument for putting Galileo on passenger aircraft.

This selling point was based on the fear that the US would at some point turn off the GPS signal over certain areas due to a crisis or war. Of course, if the US felt it had to turn GPS off, why would it not go ahead and jam all other satellite navigation signals, including Galileo? Even worse is the growing evidence that solar storms interfere with, and even block, the operation of all these constellations. There is no way that the European system can be given a dispensation from the physics of the solar system.

The businesses that are being asked to invest in Galileo are now starting to ask about liability. If something goes wrong with the “safety of life” signal, who get sued? The EU, ESA, the member states of the EU, or the companies who own and operate the system on behalf of Europe? Considering the possibility that a single disaster could end up costing billions of euros, the firms involved and their insurance companies are asking some pretty tough questions.

This leaves the military rationale as the only logical reason for the Europeans to proceed with the system. Last month, US businessman Javad Ashajee was quoted in Space News saying that “The military is the only one that needs this system and that has the money to pay for it.” He proposed a quasi-merger of GPS with Galileo as the only practical way to pay for the system.

This idea would emotionally devastate those in Europe who had hoped that Galileo would emerge as the cornerstone of an independent European military space force. It would be a symbol of the end of the transatlantic military relationship. Of course, with the strained defense budgets of the post-Cold War era, particularly the cuts in Germany and Italy, there was no way that this project could be paid for out of normal defense spending, so they had to find a civilian cover for it.

Galileo got as far as it did because Europe’s governments were willing to spend taxpayers’ money on it. It will only survive because, one way or another, this flow of government money will continue.

Its not as if a civilian space project had never before been used to hide a military one. Europe’s hypocrisy in this regard was no worse than America’s, Russia’s, India’s, or anyone else’s. What made Galileo different was that its funding was expected to come from the private sector: this was the fatal flaw in the program. As we all saw during the Indian Ocean tsunami crisis over two years ago, aircraft carriers do have civilian uses, but we do not expect them to be funded out of a civilian budget. Trying to fund a military system by promising that it would somehow make money for its investors was never going work.

Investors, even those subject to the kinds of political pressures that big defense contractors such as EADS and Finmecanica, are trained to examine projects in the light of their potential profitability. They see thousands of good ideas every year and the vast majority are rejected. Galileo got as far as it did because Europe’s governments were willing to spend taxpayers’ money on it. It will only survive because, one way or another, this flow of government money will continue.

At some point Europe’s governments may decide to redirect their space money into other projects, such as the much needed Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES). As long as they suffer from “GPS Envy”, Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem will reverberate through the halls of Brussels and elsewhere, and they will keep pouring money into this project. It will be interesting to see, though, what the next president of France decides to do with the program.


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