Japan’s contract award to Mitsubishi Electric Corp. (Melco) to build three more satellites for its regional GPS augmentation constellation is a welcome development on a program that had bogged down badly over plans to have industry invest substantially in system construction and deployment.
While the prospect of industry co-financing undoubtedly made the ambitious Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) project more palatable to a fiscally challenged Japanese government, the reality is that, when push comes to shove, few companies are willing to invest on that scale amid a high degree of uncertainty about the return. Europe learned a similar lesson with its Galileo satellite navigation system, which had to be rescued by the European Union after industry balked at footing the bill for constellation development and sustainment. European companies were rightly skeptical of Galileo’s ability to generate revenue, especially with the U.S. GPS service available globally, free of charge.
QZSS is a regional system designed primarily to improve the availability and accuracy of GPS signals in and around Japan, but its moneymaking potential is equally uncertain. Another big problem was that, as originally organized back in 2002, the QZSS program had several government-agency stakeholders, none of which had clear responsibility for funding. It’s no wonder, then, that the program effectively ground to a halt well before the first satellite reached orbit in 2010.
That all changed thanks in large part to a 2008 law that directed a sweeping reorganization of Japanese government space activities and more-clearly defined funding responsibility for programs like QZSS. As part of the reorganization, the government created the National Office of Space Policy, a clout-wielding Cabinet-level organization with primary decision-making authority for Japanese space activities. The new office identified QZSS as a priority in 2011, eventually leading to the award of the nearly $540 million contract to Melco.
In addition to ensuring the availability and boosting the accuracy of GPS signals in Japan’s often difficult terrain, the QZSS will carry a disaster messaging system capable of relaying warnings to cell phones. The March 2011 tsunami that devastated portions of the Japanese coast, and the subsequent recovery effort, highlighted the critical importance not only of GPS signal availability but also of having the ability to warn citizens of impending disaster.
QZSS, in short, is too important a capability to be left to the whims of an uncertain marketplace. The Japanese government’s renewed commitment to the program, particularly given its fiscal challenges, testifies to its recognition of that reality.