Monday, November 12, 2007

Galileo - Go Figure

I bought a satnav for the car last week. Nothing fancy, but as well as doing the whole showing you where you are thing, it gives you live traffic reports, speed camera alerts and works as a handsfree kit for your mobile into the bargain. In short, it's everything a parliamentary candidate could possibly want to help stay on route, on time and on the right side of the boys in blue.
Most impressive of all, though, is the accuracy. When GPS first came on the market, the signal was 'fudged' by the US military so that for civilian applications, you would only be able to tell where you were to within 100m or so. Now, thanks to the removal of this restriction and a correction system known as EGNOS, even cheapo units like mine can be accurate to within a couple of metres. While you still wouldn't use it to walk atop a narrow mountain ridge in the fog, as the blurb says, it does make GPS 'suitable for safety critical applications such as flying aircraft or navigating ships through narrow channels'.

Three cheers then, for the EU and the European Space Agency for developing this initiative? Well, yes and no. Not content with improving the existing, free GPS system to a level which would satisfy the most demanding non-military users, they seem intent on ploughing on with the Galileo project - a European Satnav system which would duplicate, in all but a few aspects, that which the self-same European agencies have now enabled GPS to do perfectly well.

Galileo was budgeted at a cost of €4bn (£2.7bn) as recently as May 2007, which, it was claimed, would have needed to come out of the public purse if the project were to go ahead at all. However, in a report published this morning by the House of Commons Transport Committee, the cost is now being put at €7.96bn (£5.5bn) to build and launch, with a total operating cost until 2033 of €14bn (£9.68bn).
Ouch - and all this, remember, for something which will only really do what with a few tweaks, we can already get GPS to do. But there's more - just flicking to page 11 of the report, we can see the Committee's lack of confidence even in this forecast, when they remark that:

"The estimated and outturn costs of the Galileo programme have increased at every stage of its history. We have no reason to believe that even the very substantial costs now estimated for the total programme bear any significant relationship to the likely outturn".

In fact, the report comes as close as anything I've ever seen to telling a Government to bail out of a project:

"The jury is out on the continued rationale for Galileo"; "The evidence provided by the Commission is scant, and gives no real thought to crucial risks and alternative options"; The history of the programme provides a textbook example of how not to run large scale infrastructure projects"; "British taxpayers will be paying around 17% of the cost of Galileo"; "The government must work to ensure that common sense and good governance are reinstated"; The time has come for the government to initiate a reappraisal of other large EU projects to ensure that the Galileo fiasco is not repeated elsewhere, outside the limelight".

And so say all of us. Lets be honest - private involvement in Galileo foundered because the sector thought the revenue forecasts over-optimistic and the risks too high. Even the likely public sector users of the system are showing little enthusiasm, as are the consumers already happy with their accurate to 2 metres GPS handsets.

Expect to hear, as with the EARL project and Edinburgh trams, that so much has already been spent that we have no choice but to continue with the project - the Magnus Magnusson defence of 'I've started so I'll finish', if you will. Well, as our Professor drummed into my accountancy class, sunk costs are exactly that - sunk, and shouldn't be considered when deciding whether or not something represents a worthwhile investment into the future.

The rest of the EU can do what it likes with this vanity project, but not a penny more of Scottish or British taxes should be spent on this folly.


Dougthedug said...

There is all that, but the biggest drawback of GPS is that it is exactly as you describe, a US military system.

It can be degraded and turned off whenever it suits the interests of the US.

What you get with GPS only is a Europe which relies on a navigation system where the US military controls the "Off" Switch.

The true purpose of the Galileo system is underplayed but it's about having an independent European Sat-Nav system.

It's a question of control, and the US doesn't like a rival. If you trust the US then Galileo is a white elephant. If you don't trust the US it's a way of bypassing US control and influence.

Have a read of this from 2001. The US doesn't like losing control over Europe.

China is building their own GPS system Beidou and Russia is also building its GLONASS GPS system. They certainly don't trust the US to keep GPS online at all times. If Europe doesn't have one it will be the odd man out.

Richard Thomson said...

This is true, Doug, but I'm struggling to envisage the circumstances where the US would consider it to be in its interests to degrade or shut off GPS signals in Europe.

The only time I can think of where they might have done that in the last century (if the technology had existed at the time) was Suez. Frankly, the American threats made then about causing a run on the £ were enough on their own to force a British u-turn, and thank goodness they were.

At the end of the day, if the US or any other power for that matter wanted to degrade satnav functionality in Europe for any reason, it would be fairly simple to either jam the Galileo signals or shoot the satellites out of the sky.

Dougthedug said...

GPS sat-nav is worldwide, not just in Europe. The problem is more likely to occur somewhere like Iran where the US could degrade the GPS signal or reduce coverage deliberately as some form of sanction, or in Somalia or perhaps in Cuba or Venezuela. This could affect European interests in these countries or in nearby regions.

The second problem is that the US may decide it needs much more accurate coverage in Iraq, or some other hot-spot and to do that it must shift satellites which degrades coverage somewhere else.

If there is a satellite shortage due to failures then the US will keep the satellites positioned to cover the US preferentially.

You might argue that what happens overseas doesn't affect Europe that much but it does mean that Europe is reliant on a sat-nav system which is outwith of its control.

The backwash of the US deliberately degrading the GPS signal somewhere or shifting coverage due to satellite failure or some foreign adventure is much more likely than direct action.

You could end up with quite a lot of businesses in Europe reliant on GPS. The location of employees, goods, navigation and so on. The US then has a level of power over them if they're all reliant on its GPS system.

Maybe it's a touch of paranoia but I don't think that it's a great idea to rely on the good-will of the US for Europe's sat-nav system.