GPS and Galileo: Competition Among Friends

Heinz Hilbrecht
Heinz Hilbrecht

Mr. Hilbrecht, what are the main differences and similarities between GPS and Galileo?

Hilbrecht: Galileo is the only global satellite navigation system to be developed and optimized specifically for civil use. In contrast, GPS has only been a dual use system – which means open for use in the civil sphere – for a few years, and remains in the first instance a cornerstone of the American defense system. While GPS only offers a single civil signal service, Galileo supports both a free open signal and various added value services. These will include one specific commercial signal and one navigational signal for air and sea traffic with automatic error warnings, a specially secured signal for public services such as the police and border guard, and a signal for emergency services. As you can see, Galileo offers more operational possibilities than GPS.

These open services will be similar to the corresponding GPS services. This will ensure that receivers are able to receive both GPS and Galileo signals. In contrast to GPS, the open Galileo services will undergo further optimization, but there will always be a basic service common to both Galileo and GPS.
On the technical side, one of the main differences is that Galileo has undergone significant improvements as regards its positioning accuracy and reliability, even in problem zones such as the Earth’s polar regions or heavily built-up cities. Galileo provides more reliable signal accuracy and availability, which is important for applications where safety is critical, such as air traffic. GPS cannot offer this.

So GPS and Galileo complement one another, rather than competing?

Hilbrecht: Yes, you could say that.

In what fields will Galileo be used first, and where will it be used in future?

Hilbrecht: Thus far, over 100 applications have been planned for Galileo, including transport and fleet management, positioning services for individual use, the energy sector and precision farming in the agricultural sector. In the energy sector, for example, Galileo can be used to electronically map infrastructures, synchronize electricity grids and generators, or troubleshoot in electricity grids. In agriculture, Galileo can be used to gain pinpoint information about soil quality, pest infestations and crop yields from fields, enabling a targeted, sparing application of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides – again, with Galileo’s help – which is kinder on the environment and conserves resources.

In twenty years’ time, location positioning using satellite navigation will be an indispensable everyday tool much as the telephone is today. It’s not hard to imagine the system becoming a standard tool providing significant efficiency gains in traffic management, for example in toll systems, traffic circulation management systems and emergency services.
Since Galileo, in contrast to GPS, can offer special added value services, it can be expected to tap into new markets all over the world. Galileo’s development is not being driven by the military, as was the case with GPS; third states and the private sector are also able to participate. The great interest third states have shown in participating in Galileo provides an early demonstration of its global market potential. The EU has already signed recent agreements with China and Israel, and others will surely follow.

What problems can be expected with the American GPS when Galileo is implemented?

Hilbrecht: I’m not expecting any problems. Galileo will contribute to a climate of healthy competition which will also lead to improvements benefiting civil GPS users. Contrary to popular reports, the USA cannot “switch off” Galileo. The alleged problems for national security which the USA repeatedly expressed had more to do with Galileo and GPS sharing the scarce radio frequencies. The negotiations resolved the question of the two systems’ coexistence in the same frequency band to both parties’ satisfaction. The NATO commanders will be supplied with the technical means to interrupt civil Galileo or GPS signals in a restricted geographical zone in the event of a regional crisis. However, this will in no way affect the global availability of Galileo.

How will the agreement with the USA benefit Galileo?

Hilbrecht: The agreement not only guarantees coexistence with equal rights, it also provides significant benefits by agreeing a global common signal standard for general applications and open services. System interference on both sides can be avoided. Receivers should be able to receive both systems’ signals (interoperability of the systems). The USA and EU can also make technical improvements to their respective systems without the other side being able to veto them. Of course the interests of national security must be respected. Last but not least, we hope that this will put an end to all media speculation about frequency problems.

What concessions did the respective parties have to make?

Hilbrecht: To secure the coexistence of both systems in a narrow frequency range, both sides had to make concessions which were possible only after lengthy and complicated technical negotiations. This required a certain understanding on the part of the EU regarding the needs of electronic warfare in which the military of the USA and other NATO members are involved. On the other hand, the USA was finally forced to accept that the military GPS code must not be allowed to interfere with the civil Galileo signals. The negotiations were very intensive and took place at an expert technical level in an atmosphere that was at times tense, but always professional. Despite all the prophecies of doom, we were actually able in the end to achieve a win-win solution.

Do you still disagree on any points?

Hilbrecht: No. Both sides have also agreed to establish working groups to continue the exchange of ideas as regards security, trade and system development moving forward.

Does this ensure that Galileo will continue to be available during a war in which the USA is involved?

Hilbrecht: It ensures that the EU retains control of Galileo. The USA does not have the means to switch Galileo off. What’s more, switching off Galileo (by the EU) is just not realistic, even in emergency situations. It is in the interest of the EU to ensure the global continuity of the Galileo signals. Even in the hypothetical scenario of an enemy state using a satellite navigation system against our interests, it would not simply be switched off. It would make more sense to employ local countermeasures such as “jamming”, interfering with signals in a specific, restricted region.

Which confederation or confederations could next be interested in establishing a GPS, and what would the EU’s attitude be to this?

Hilbrecht: The Russian Glonass system, also a primarily military system, has long existed alongside GPS. The European Commission is currently negotiating a cooperation agreement between Galileo and Glonass too. Apart from Galileo, however, there are no truly new global satellite navigation systems on the horizon. While regional systems are being developed, for example in India, they are dependent on GPS or Glonass.

Doesn’t the progress made in the development of satellite navigation in the past decade require new international treaties?

Hilbrecht: We in the Commission have considered the question of multilateral conventions, for example the question of an international satellite navigation convention on liability issues. Apart from the bilateral treaties between the EU and third countries I have mentioned, however, we have not identified any urgent need for multilateral action. The UN is however showing a growing interest in the use of satellite navigation technology. In October the UN General Assembly will publish a few recommendations covering, among other things, the coordination between operators. The EU Commission makes regular contributions to this work.