European governments should tread carefully as they weigh whether to mandate the use of their own Galileo satellite navigation services across Europe.

The advertised rationale for doing so is to jump-start the market for Galileo-based receivers and services. But there also might be underlying concerns about relevancy, since Galileo likely will be the last of the four global positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) satellite services to become available after the U.S. GPS, Russian Glonass and Chinese Beidou systems.

The problem is that it is difficult to predict how some of these other national operators will react to a Galileo mandate for European Union members. The most obvious — whether or not it is the most likely — possibility is that these countries will issue similar mandates for their territories, leading to a regionalization of PNT services. That, in turn, would limit Galileo’s potential while complicating industry efforts to standardize their PNT offerings. 

European officials have long justified the huge investment in Galileo as a hedge against the possibility that the United States would cut off access to GPS signals during a crisis, something U.S. officials have repeatedly said is highly unlikely. Even with the EU fully committed to Galileo, that scenario continues to be invoked in program brochures.

Oddly enough, an EU mandate to use Galileo services and equipment in Europe seems driven by the opposite fear — that GPS, or perhaps another service, will become the standard.

Rather than issuing usage mandates that smack of protectionism, European governments and industry might want to recognize, and tap into, currents that already run in Galileo’s favor. First, PNT users, particularly those serving critical functions, typically want access to at least two services, which provides better position-location accuracy in addition to a backup capability in case one becomes unavailable for any reason. Second, Europe’s economy and security are closely intertwined with the economy and security of the United States. Because of this, PNT equipment manufacturers serving these markets likely will want to design their wares to be compatible with both GPS and Galileo.

One thing the European Commission could do to give its system a lift is to grant the U.S. military access to Galileo’s Public Regulated Service, the encrypted, jam-resistant signals intended for military and public safety applications. The U.S. Defense Department, which makes GPS’s encrypted military service, known as the M-code, available to its European NATO allies, has a standing request for reciprocal access to the PRS. It is hard to understand why the European Commission has yet to grant this request from its most important military partner.

Once that happens, equipment manufacturers are far more likely to make both services a standard offering. 

Generally speaking, markets are better off when left to their own devices rather than subjected to government meddling that might be politically motivated, and can have unforeseen and adverse consequences. The European Commission should take these potential consequences fully into account and err on the side of caution as it considers measures that would artificially drive its members to Galileo.