Chinese Move Could Accelerate Trend Toward Building Navigation Gear for Multiconstellation Reception

PARIS — A senior Chinese government space official on Feb. 5 said precision-navigation user terminals in China will be fitted with chipsets receiving satellite signals not only China’s Beidou constellation, but also from the U.S., Russian and European systems.

The assertion, if borne out by ground truth as Beidou expands from its current regional coverage into a global constellation by the end of the decade, could accelerate the trend among navigation chipset and terminal makers to build gear for multiconstellation reception and undermine protectionist regional measures to promote one system over the others.

The U.S. government and the 28-nation European Union have been circling each other for years on this subject, with the U.S. on the lookout for any European breach of U.S.-EU agreements on non-discrimination between the U.S. GPS and European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing networks.

The United States and Europe are party to World Trade Organization agreements barring technical barriers to trade in each other’s goods, and on rules governing government procurement practices.

China and Russia are not party to these agreements.

In an address here to the Paris Space Week conference, organized by ASTech Paris Region and Proximum Group, the Chinese official said China’s early deployment of satellite navigation terminals for precision agriculture already feature multimode GPS-Beidou receivers.

Asked whether that would continue as Beidou expands from its current regional focus, Chen Zhi, deputy chief designer of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., said chipsets would receive Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s Glonass signals as well.

Beidou currently operates with 14 in-orbit satellites and covers the whole of China and the surrounding region. The full constellation is designed to comprise 35 satellites – five in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator, three in inclined-geostationary orbit and 27 in medium Earth orbit.

The  U.S. and Chinese satellite navigation constellations as depicted by Analytical Graphics STK Software in 2011.
The U.S. and Chinese satellite navigation constellations as depicted by Analytical Graphics STK Software in 2011.

Europe’s Galileo constellation has only begun deployment but is also expected to reach fully global operational status by the end of this decade.

GPS and Russia’s Glonass are the only global constellations in operation for now.

For users, capturing signals from more than one constellation is generally viewed as a positive. The more satellites in view, the more precise the signal and the greater the likelihood of getting a position fix in mountainous areas or in urban areas.

The U.S. and Europe have agreed to jointly promote a civil signal to be shared by both constellations.

Securing Home Field Advantage?

Signal diversity in a given chipset has advantages especially for military and emergency-service providers as it reduces the likelihood of jamming. The U.S. Defense Department has cited this advantage in saying it would like to use Galileo’s Public Regulated Service, equivalent to the GPS military code, which broadcasts on frequencies far enough apart that jamming one will not jam the other.

But despite the advantages to users, domestic industrial policy concerns continue to argue for regulations favoring the home teams.

“If Galileo is to succeed, it will need accompaniment to do battle against GPS and the other systems that exist. Let’s not be naïve about this.”

In Europe especially, there is a concern that Galileo’s time to market will put it in fourth position out of four constellations if its full deployment comes after China’s. Galileo also has a commercial service designed to generate revenue – a challenge given the freely available GPS, Glonass and Beidou signals, and Galileo’s own Open Service, which is free of charge.

Pierre Delsaux, deputy director-general at the European Commission’s Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SME directorate-general – which includes Galileo in its mandate – said assuring the success for Galileo services is a priority.

Pierre Delsaux
Pierre Delsaux. Credit: European Commission

Addressing the European Space Policy conference in Brussels, Belgium, on Jan. 27, Delsaux speculated that the commission will have to do something to favor Galileo’s development. A thriving Galileo services sector, he said, “is important to help us both on the export and the internal market.”

“GPS already exists” and is free, Delsaux said. “If Galileo is to succeed, it will need accompaniment to do battle against GPS and the other systems that exist. Let’s not be naïve about this.”

Delsaux said he did not yet have any specific measures in mind to promote Galileo’s use. Some officials have suggested that the eCall emergency road service mandate Galileo.

Proponents of multiconstellation chipsets have said government regulators should specify performance goals, and leave the market to determine how best to meet the goals without putting their hands on the scales to favor their domestic brands.

It likely will be a long-term effort. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in publishing guidelines for location accuracy requirements for mobile devices with respect to the U.S. E911 emergency-call service, had to push back against pressure to keep Glonass out of the business.

The FCC is requiring network operators to assure that any non-GPS satellite signals are compatible and interoperable with GPS, and goes so far as to suggest technical problems in using any satellite system besides GPS:

“For example, devices that are augmented to receive signals from multiple satellite constellations may be more susceptible to radio frequency interference than devices that receive signals from GPS alone,” the FCC said in its Jan. 29 E911 order.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.