Will Nokia's deal with Glonass threaten GPS and Galileo?

Will Nokia's deal with Glonass threaten GPS and Galileo?

10 August 2011 by Pelle Neroth

It's very early days yet. But a Swedish satellite network has just praised the Russian equivalent of America's Global Positioning System (GPS) as being "better for northern latitudes". And Nokia just today, according to Reuters, signed on with Glonass, announcing it is to install it on some of its mobile phones next year.

Finland, of course, has traditionally shown geopolitical sensitivity to Russian and, in earlier times, Soviet needs, and Russian ministers have been upset that uptake seems slower than they had hoped, not least because some in the domestic Russian media were sceptical that there was a point in having a domestic system that would just duplicate GPS.

In April this year, one well known Russian mobile phone reviewer, Eldar Mutazin, dismissed the first Russian handset to come on to the market with Glonass capabilities, called MTS Glonass 945, for being twice as expensive, the equivalent of £250, as handsets with only GPS. The Russian government is considering a 25% tax on foreign handsets that do not have Glonass installed, and that may have been a contributing reason behind Nokia's decision. The Finnish company sells hundreds of thousands of handsets in Russia each year.

Nokia is the first international handset maker to adopt the Russian system. Talks are said to be under way with Motorola too.

Russia has been developing Glonass since 1976, and in recent years the project has been swallowing up to a third of the Russian space budget of $6bn.

Progress had been very tardy over the decades, with the system put on the slow burner during the Soviet's Union's decline and collapse, but president Vladimir Putin made investment in the system a priority after he came to power in 2000 to help wean the country off dependence on Western technology.

Since then, taxis, dump trucks, emergency vehicles and even Putin's pet dog have had devices installed that track their location. Large scale consumer roll-out has been so far somewhat lacking, though.

Coverage of Russia's massive territory has been complete for some time, but the company's global ambitions received a setback in December 2010 when a rocket carrying three satellites to complete coverage crashed and sank in the Indian Ocean.

The current number in orbit is 24 satellites, just about the minimum for global coverage, but the company recently said it expects 29 to be aloft by the end of the year, the replacements having been rebuilt.

Success at capturing the interest of western handset makers could represent a real threat to the Chinese Compass and the EU taxpayer funded Galileo systems, the latter of which won't be ready until 2020, after the predicable Brussels bureaucratic squabbles, cost over-runs and time delays.

As for all dominant GPS, Glonass executives say they only want to complement, not compete with, GPS, hoping handsets will be dual capability, increasing accuracy compared to GPS only equipment. By tuning into Glonass and GPS at the same time, a GPS chip can get a position fix more quickly and accurately than before. This is especially true in urban areas where high rises can block line of sight reception from satellites.

But at the same time, Glonass bosses boast that the Swedish network of satellite reference stations, SEPOS, has already claimed the Russian system better for their purposes. Because of Glonass's particular orbit, it offers a greater accuracy at northern latitudes than the American rival.
Useful, then for northern Scandinavia, but also - thinking of the future - shipping and prospecting in the melting Arctic, which all the major powers are queuing up to exploit.

GPS has an enormous lead and may even be boosted by Glonass's complementarity, but I'd guess there are commission officials in Brussels are biting their nails at today's news, and the fact that Europe's own baby is nine years away.

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Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 10 August 2011 at 09:12 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 10 August 2011 09:06 PM     Space  

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