Why should the EU run a satellite system?

Satellite (picture US Navy)

This blog commented previously on the funding difficulties faced by the EU’s Galileo project – one of the private sector funders pulled out and critical questions are now, properly, being asked about whether it really offers value for money. The previous blog entry (read it here) looked at the procedural issues of taking such a decision, but I want also to look at the basic idea that the EU should fund satellite navigation in the first place.

The Galileo project is at the leading edge of technology, involving a network of satellites broadcasting radio signals back down to earth in such a way as to enable a receiver to work out from those signals exactly where on earth it is. The Americans run a similar system at the moment, GPS, but it has two drawbacks: it is not very accurate; and it is under the control of the American military.

The first drawback is a technological one – Galileo is intended to be more precise in the measurements it allows and therefore more useful. The EU has a role here because of the cost of building such a network, which would be beyond that of any individual member state alone. There are many other examples of this role, such as the Airbus consortium, where Europeans get together to fund collective projects.

The second drawback is political: the Americans have the power to withdraw access to their GPS signal at any time, whereas the European system is intended to be independent. Indeed, when the EU was first considering the Galileo proposal, voices in the Bush administration were arguing vociferously against it: they liked the idea that the rest of the world depended on their goodwill, and did not want to lose this crucial role. Establishing the Galileo system is not only a technological project but also a political one.

There is another feature of the Galileo project, though, which I also want to mention, which puts it firmly in the tradition of the kind of things that governments do, and that is the way in which it establishes standards. The aim of Galileo is to provide, to all who want it, a precise and consistent measurement of location. It will be precise, because it is advanced, and it will be consistent, because everyone will use the same measurements. And consistency is, in its own right, important.

Setting standards has long been a task of government. The calendar is one of the earliest examples. So is the enforcement of a reliable system of weights and measures. On the medieval clock tower in the city of Bern in Switzerland, there is a brass strip to define the town ell (a measure of cloth). The town clock itself was the definitive measure of time in that town. The coming of the railways necessitated the adoption of national time, rather than just municipal time. Today, there are laboratories that maintain the measure of atomic time that is accepted worldwide.

The twin advances of technology and public concern have taken standard-setting into new areas. Government is now setting down how the calorific content of food and drink should be labelled, and whether it contains saturated fats. One of the major tasks in creating the European single market was to establish the necessary standards at a European level rather than to permit national variations that would act in a protectionist manner. It looked like more regulation, but it was replacing lots of different national rules, it would actually be less.

Galileo is, in many ways, a further example of this activity. In the future, the measurement of location will become fundamental to many aspects of the modern economy. Traffic management is already based on it: the satnav devices in cars use the GPS system. Farmers use GPS so that they can sow seeds and scatter fertiliser in the right parts of their fields. Fishing boats use GPS in order to trawl their nets closer to underwater outcrops of rock without getting snagged. New uses are emerging for it all the time.

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, compares it with the provision of electricity and water, but it could turn out to be more fundamental even than that. Water and electricity can at least be charged for: much of the effectiveness of navigation is that the system used is consistent, in which case it needs to be given away free to make sure that everyone uses the same. That is the vision behind the Galileo project – it is more like the measurement of time than the provision of a utility. As a grand cross-border measuring device, it is exactly the kind of thing that the European Union should be doing.

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