The EU Suffers From a Navigation Failure

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The European Union’s satellite navigation system, Galileo, has been down since July 11. The outage, the longest-ever of such a service, highlights how difficult it will be to wean the world off its dependence on the U.S., Russian and Chinese militaries for critical (and lucrative) navigation services.

At the time of writing, Galileo’s 24 satellites were listed as “not usable” on the system’s website. No time frame has been announced for bringing them back online, and no specific explanation has been provided beyond a reference to “a technical incident related to ground infrastructure.”

Inside GNSS reports that the problem occurred at the so-called Precise Time Facility, whose purpose is to generate (using atomic clocks) and distribute the Galileo system time. The system was purposely designed with redundancy: There are, in fact, two Precise Time Facilities, one in Germany and the other in Italy. According to the industry publication, both have apparently failed.

Galileo can’t be expected to function perfectly yet. It is still in its “initial services” phase, and was only meant to go fully operational later this year. It’s troubling, though, that such a major outage has occurred so late in the system’s development, which has taken two decades and cost 13 billion euros ($14.6 billion). 

The big idea behind Galileo is to provide the first global navigation system under civilian control. All the existing rivals – the U.S. Global Positioning System, Russia’s GLONASS and China’s Beidou – are run by their respective countries’ militaries. Their primary purpose is to make sure logistics and weaponry can still operate if a competing superpower makes its system unavailable. By contrast, Galileo is geared primarily toward reaping the huge economic benefits of satellite navigation.

In the U.S. alone, according to a recent estimate, GPS has generated a total of $1.4 trillion in economic benefits (in 2017 dollars) since it became available for civilian use in the 1980s. According to the European Space Agency, some 7% of European economic output is dependent on satellite navigation, and the more precise the positioning, the greater the benefits to transportation, energy, agriculture and the app economy. That’s why Japan and India have developed satellite constellations that have no pretensions to global coverage but are designed to improve the accuracy of GPS-based positioning at home.

Galileo – when it worked – provided a major boost in precision; it is, after all, a newer system than GPS. Adding support for the European satellite constellation to an industrial-grade device improved positioning accuracy by up to 30% compared with GPS and by up to 11% compared with a dual GPS/GLONASS setup, according to research published in May.

Though most major global powers have moved to cut their GPS dependence in the last 20 years, the U.S.-based system’s powerful advantage is that it is extremely reliable. The whole constellation never goes down. When specific satellites become unusable, it’s usually just for a few hours at a time. The service, in other words, is well-maintained and runs smoothly.

That can’t be said of GLONASS, which, until this year, was the only other satellite constellation with global coverage. It suffered a total outage for 11 hours in 2014 because of faulty software, and is now plagued with sanctions-related problems. Some 40% of components in GLONASS satellites are of Western origin, and neither Europe nor the U.S. has been willing to supply dual civilian-military use technology to Russia since it invaded Ukraine. Last month, the government cut funding for maintaining GLONASS, and redirected the cash toward trying to produce homegrown technology to replace what it previously imported. This doesn’t augur well for the short- and medium-term future of GLONASS.

Beidou, the Chinese system, announced earlier this year that it had worldwide coverage. It has been launching more satellites than all the other systems in recent years, and has been pretty reliable so far. But for Europeans, being dependent on the U.S. and China for navigation is hardly a comfortable position. That’s exactly what Europe will face, though, if Galileo keeps suffering from technical problems as serious as the one it faces today.

Once the outage is fixed, the European Space Agency and the European Commission, which jointly run Galileo, need to step up and figure out what design flaws and management mistakes led to the problem.

Civilian control of a navigation system has its obvious advantages, and the world needs a service that isn’t primarily run for military needs. But that shouldn’t mean running a critical service as if it were a home internet provider, telling users to wait indefinitely for an unspecific problem to be fixed. On the contrary, it should mean transparency and timely updates. Otherwise, the inevitable puns about the EU losing its way will be richly deserved.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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