Editorial: Satellite Navigation Systems Need Coordination

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  Space News Business

Editorial: Satellite Navigation Systems Need Coordination

posted: 30 January 2009
04:09 pm ET






and the
United States
, perhaps along with
Russia
,
India
and
Japan
, must find a way to coax
China
into being more forthcoming about plans for its Compass/Beidou satellite navigation system, whose development appears to be moving more quickly than expected. If
China
‘s ambitious deployment schedule holds, Compass/Beidou would be in service well before
‘s planned Galileo satellite navigation constellation. European officials are worried that Compass/Beidou’s encrypted signal will operate in a frequency range that overlaps with Galileo’s restricted-access Public Regulated Service. If that turns out to be the case, Europe would not be able to jam the Compass/Beidou system’s most accurate signals during an emergency without also blocking the Public Regulated Service in the affected area.

Galileo posed the same potential problem for GPS 3, the next-generation
U.S.
satellite navigation system; the issue was resolved only after years of often contentious negotiations between the two sides.
Europe
now faces a similar parley with
China
, an already difficult prospect made even more daunting by
Europe
‘s almost complete lack of insight into
Beijing
‘s Compass/Beidou plans.

China
is well within International Telecommunication Union rules to choose its Compass/Beidou operating frequencies so long as the signals do not interfere with established systems. But
Beijing
also needs to recognize that Compass/Beidou users will be better served if the system is coordinated with others to the extent possible.

So far this is not happening. European officials complain that despite months of discussions with Chinese officials in forums like the UN-established International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems, or ICG, they still are unclear on Compass/Beidou’s key technical characteristics. With development of the operational Galileo constellation scheduled to begin in earnest this year, European authorities need this information so they can design their system accordingly. Galileo already is bumping up against its cost ceiling;
Europe
certainly cannot afford to make design changes after construction begins.

In addition to not getting the details they need, European negotiators don’t even know if they are talking to the right people since, as is the case with many Chinese space programs, the military wields considerable influence over Compass/Beidou but does so from behind the scenes.
Europe
‘s counterparts in the current discussions hail from
China
‘s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Complicating the matter is the fact that
Europe
, after modifying Galileo’s Public Regulated Service signal in response to
U.S.
concerns about GPS compatibility, has limited wiggle room; any significant change in that signal’s operating frequency likely would require revisiting the agreement so painstakingly crafted with the
United States
. This of course makes
Europe
‘s problem a potential issue for the
United States
as well.

With
Russia
replenishing its Glonass global navigation constellation, and regional systems planned by
Japan
and
India
, it is probably safe to say additional compatibility issues will arise in the future. The ICG was established to resolve such matters, but it lacks enforcement authority; participation is strictly voluntary.

In the case of Compass/Beidou,
Europe
, the
United States
and other countries developing satellite navigation systems would be wise to devise a coordinated strategy to encourage
China
to cough up the necessary details of its plans. Given the complex relationship between
Beijing
and
Washington
,
Europe
is best positioned to take the lead in any direct negotiations with
China
.

It would be helpful if
China
would clarify who’s calling the shots on Compass/Beidou. Failing that,
Beijing
should provide assurances its Ministry of Science and Technology has the authority to negotiate binding agreements on system operating frequencies.

More broadly, all countries with a stake in satellite navigation should look at ways to strengthen the ICG process, perhaps by creating formal mechanisms for coordination of systems in development or on the drawing board.