The GNSS race

Mar 2010 | No Comment

There are some countries trying to develop their own GNSS system. Is there any race? If yes, how appropriate and where would it lead to? Here are some views
“Well first of all there is the issue of robustness and putting all your eggs in one basket – that is one aspect and a major legitimate concern. The other, is a matter of national pride. In Europe there is a feeling that GPS dominates things. The national pride also relates to perceived economic benefits. Last, GPS has a signal that is used for our military and allies. I think in some cases other countries would like to have such a signal. The military aspect and having control of a GPS-based precision weapon delivery system is just part of the way the world operates. I think the reason the Chinese are developing Compass, more than anything else, is to support their military, though I am certain they are going to make a portion of their system available for civil use as well” Dr Bradford W Parkinson Chief Architect of GPS
Coordinates, January 2010

What race?

Chris Rizos

Vice President of the
International Association
of Geodesy (IAG)

A “Race” implies competitors (& spectators), a winner (& losers?), prize, rules, admirable technique and arduous training. So are the current and planned Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSSs) and Regional Navigation Satellite Systems (RNSSs) running a Race? If it is a question of who is in the lead, then the U.S.’s Global Positioning System (GPS) is the undisputed champion. But are we really just observing the spectacle of the same race being run over and over again, in the faint hope that there will be another winner? That GPS will tire, or falter? Is this no different to the punter, who no matter how many times they lose at poker, just demands “one more game”?

GPS is still the gold standard, the World Champion, the GNSS that all others must aspire to out-perform. GPS is not young, with the first test satellite launched in 1978 and full operational capability announced in mid-1995 – almost 15 years ago. It is true that GPS has evolved, albeit rather slowly, through the Block II generations. But like a champion who has not been given a strenuous workout, it has only been forced to make modest performance improvements. That will change with the Block IIF and Block III generations.

However, for a long time GPS did not even acknowledge there was a “Race” – although GPS-Glonass rivalry was a vestige of the Cold War Era. That was not a true competition, as each insisted on being treated “unique” and “incomparable”. When the E.U. started seriously to consider building its own GNSS about a decade ago, the U.S. was genuinely surprised. The E.U.’s Galileo system sought to challenge GPS’s supremacy on unfamiliar grounds – changing the rules of the “Race”? Galileo would compete on the basis of providing guaranteed levels of performance, a better suite of services targeting different markets, not being military-controlled, and – even if it were found to be inferior to GPS in some respect – would claim Galileo was necessary to ensure the E.U.’s sovereignty over navigation infrastructure. Although now other GNSSs and RNSSs acknowledge the validity of some of the Galileo claims, it is clearly in a race-of-its-own. All other GNSSs and RNSSs tote national security and the need to develop “smart weapons” as (most?) important drivers.

So is there a “GNSS Race”? That does imply that all will compete according to the same “rules” – after all, what sort of race would a track & field event be if one competitor is running, the other competitor is doing a hop-skip-jump, the other is jumping hurdles, and so on. That each GNSS/RNSS has its own rationale – even national pride – and “business case” to justify its development is to be acknowledged. However many of us believe that only with the establishment of the U.N.’s International Committee on GNSS as a forum to bring together the different GNSS/RNSS signal providers and promoted the concept of “interoperability” – that the combination of capabilities is superior to each individual GNSS/ RNSS – that we now see what could be described as a true “GNSS Race”.

GPS is clearly still in the lead, however as it throws out challenges to the other GNSSs and RNSSs, they must in turn respond, if only to acknowledge that they are “competitors”. Challenges include, providing a free open service, publicly available specification documents and performance standards, descriptions of time and geodetic reference frames used, frequency interoperability and compatibility, free trade in GNSS products, and others. The world (the spectators to this “Race”) benefits by seeing the responses to the challenges, by observing efforts to change the rules, by GNSS/RNSS signal providers working together to ensure that the world will not be “dominated” by GPS, and more.

We no longer doubt that a multi-GNSS world is better than one reliant on only one GNSS – no matter how good it is. Interoperability – as one of the motives to compete in the “Race” – has meant that the L1 and L5 frequencies, and that CDMA-type signals modulated on these frequencies, will be provided by all GNSSs and RNSSs. The benefit will be low-cost, dual-frequency, multi-GNSS receivers with far better performance than is currently possible with dual-frequency GPS receivers. This is but one example of how this “GNSS Race” makes us all winners.

There is a great potential for international cooperation

Sergej G Revnivych

Deputy Director General Central Research Institute
of Machine Building, leading institute of Federal Space Agency

First of all I would suggest that GNSS race be approached from two angles. On the one hand there is a competition between user equipment designers, manufacturers and navigation service providers. On the other hand one can implicate the competition between GNSS providers or between governments operating or developing their own satellite navigation systems in the seemingly competitive GNSS environment.

The competition between user equipment manufacturers or service providers has been and will be inevitable. Users will only benefit from that. What counts most here is the ability of the manufacturer to competently and efficiently take advantage of each system’s virtues to match user expectations at the most. I’m sure in the nearest future navigation receivers will be able to use all available navigation information sources. Limitations will be governed by size, mass, power consumption and, of course, cost – each of these parameters having prevailing meaning for certain application area. Hence the crucial factor here is the demand of this or that user market segment.

As for the GNSS providers virtually represented by state governments operating or deploying their own global or regional navigation satellite systems, the term “race” should not applicable. Despite the fact that GNSS civil applications account for more than 90% of GNSS market, a system itself has always been and is going to be a strategic facility, a critical state infrastructure element ensuring national security and navigation independence. In my opinion in recent years there has been a tendency for the nation having its own navigation satellite system to gain scores in the profile. The same is for the nation having its own space or/and nuclear industry.

If we are talking about civil applications it would be sufficient to have any two systems with total constellation of 50- 60 operational satellites. Further increase of spacecraft number in MEO would hardly result in enhanced availability.

At the same time creating own navigation satellite system requires enormous spending and, in my view, no investment in such a system can be compensated by gains from its commercial use. The Europeans ultimately got evidence of that as they finally decided on financing the Galileo program from the EU budget.

GNSS and RNSS development programs should be viewed as national infrastructure projects. Taking into account the strategic nature of any GNSS, its deployment and further development is a government responsibility. Hence the systems are paid and will be paid for from public funds. Even if we supposed the navigation systems never found use in civil community, they in any case would be developed and paid for.

The GNSS providers’ primary task is to make their systems as good as possible. Meeting user requirements with civil user requirements among them is of great importance for making systems good. In this respect, as GNSS civil applications make the only objective reality, there is a great potential for international cooperation to provide compatibility and interoperability of existing and future systems. And it’s the businessmen task to think up the way of maximizing gain from navigation systems’ use.

Not appropriate to encourage unnecessary competition in the development of global public infrastructure

David A Turner

Deputy Director
Space and Advanced Technology
US Department of State

My initial reaction to the term “GNSS race” is to reject its use. It does not seem appropriate to encourage unnecessary competition in the development of global public infrastructure, which is an appropriate way of viewing the nonmilitary aspects of GNSS constellations and their open signals. However, it is clear, as Dr. Brad Parkinson pointed out in January 2010 issue of Coordinates, that other aspects of positioning, navigation, and timing capabilities lead nations to their own strategic reasons for developing global or regional navigation satellite systems. If we take this as a given, and choose not to question the motivations for developing multiple systems, then the race’s emphasis can shift from the start to the finish line, and GNSS providers can focus on establishing rules that enable the private sector to compete in a way that the race can be won by all civil users worldwide.

Through the International Committee on GNSS (ICG), a voluntary organization facilitated by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, current and planned system providers have established three important principles that will help ensure a fair race is run. These are compatibility, interoperability, and transparency. Paraphrasing the exact wording of these principles as defined by the ICG, compatibility requires that the signals from one GNSS will not interfere with the signals of another and seeks to avoid overlap between limited access signals intended for secure or authorized services provided by individual systems. Interoperability means that the signals provided by one GNSS can be used with others in a manner that improves overall service. The easier it is for a multisystem receiver to be developed and manufactured, the more interoperable two or more GNSS can be considered. Finally, transparency in the provision of open signals requires that providers publish documentation that describes signal and system information, policies of provision, and minimum levels of performance. In other words, all the information that a manufacturer needs to build receivers, and enough information to let users know what kind of service quality they can expect.

Working out the details of implementing these principles will be an ongoing challenge, and in some cases, the kind of delicate discussions required may best be left to bilateral meetings of the providers involved. In other cases, formal rules may need to be set through appropriate international standard setting bodies. Either way, civil users cannot win the GNSS race unless the focus remains squarely on them and the commercial GNSS equipment and value-added services industries, and not on perceived competition among government system providers.

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