10 August 2011 by Pelle Neroth
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.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 10 August 2011 at 09:12 PM by Pelle Neroth
EU's Satellite of love? Maybe not
17 February 2011 by Pelle Neroth
To understand these perspectives, it helps to know a certain classic French vision of what Europe ought to be about.
A lot of state investment in high technology, a single European foreign policy, bureaucratic control to limit the ravages of free market capitalism. European solidarity and European trade preference. It would lead, the vision goes, to lots of 'Airbuses', not just one, that can compete toe to toe with the Americans (and now the Chinese).
In the view of some French this would all have happened long ago had it not been for the absurd two-headed circus horse behaviour that is Britain's contribution to European affairs, with the Brits always pulling firmly in the opposite direction.
Galileo, Europe's version of GPS, was supposed to be a tractor of European space innovation: the EU's technological grand projet.
When conceived in the late 1990s, the state-of-the-art system would comprise 30 satellites and ground control installations, provide thousands of high tech jobs and when up and running in 2010 (they projected), satellite navigation services offering far higher resolution would be offered. Various commercial customers would pay. To the general public it would be free.
From early on, though, the British, followed by the Dutch and Scandinavians, applied the brakes, worrying it might just duplicate GPS, and, true to their free market ideology, insisted that Galileo be funded by private investment complemented by only a small taxpayer's contribution managed by the European commission.
This "retarded" the project, since, as the then French commissioner for transport Jacques Barrot complained, the consortium structure that was imposed yoked together European space companies with very different interests. The ESA remarked that "the financial burden was too heavy for private actors." There were dark mutterings that the British with the help of their American allies wished to sabotage Galileo, with the Brits as trojan horses, inside the project only so they could wreck it.
In 2007, this setup was "corrected" when European taxpayers assumed the central funding role under commission control.
Galileo is now nearly 10 years behind schedule, it has emerged. There will be limited service by 2014 and full completion by 2020. There are huge cost overruns - doubled, to 6bn euros, with a several hundred million euro running annual costs - amid allegations that it will now be technologically obsolete when ready and face far more competitors, including a new Chinese satellite navigation system.
It will never recoup the money spent on it, critics say. British wags call Galileo the "common agricultural policy in space": a wasteful subsidy of sectoral interests.
And a German satellite company executive gave cynics delight a few weeks ago when he said Galileo's true purpose was to give the French nuclear force de frappe operational independence from the US system.
The French, though, might reply that: so what? Sovereignty has no price, and the British are welcome to share it, in the words of Prof Markus Kerber, a Berlin based specialist in Galileo procurement, who distances himself strongly from his fellow German's remarks. He adds that the EU needs a "lighthouse project" as a guiding inspiration now that the euro is wobbly.
Who is to say that the expertise gained from the Galileo project won't be put to good use in a decade's time to develop a newer generation of satellite technology? The British are sometimes too down to earth. Galileo, he says, is completely worthy of EU states' support.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 22 June 2011 at 03:39 PM by Pelle Neroth
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