Galileo project 'hindering' phone sat-nav rollout

O2 executive claims poor communication from the team behind Europe's answer to GPS is slowing down the adoption of satellite navigation in handsets

Europe's upcoming satellite constellation, Galileo, is becoming a barrier to the integration of satellite navigation into European handsets, a mobile operator claimed last week.

According to Ian Curran, head of telematics and machine-to-machine communications at O2, operators and manufacturers remain uncertain over the deployment schedule for Galileo and the likely quality of its signal. Although the mobile industry wants to put some form of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) functionality into phones, some companies within it are hesitant about which system to use.

The only GNSS currently in action is GPS, the American system designed and run by the US military. Already familiar to many people as the technology behind vehicle satellite navigation and fleet tracking, a server-assisted version called assisted GPS or A-GPS — which promises quicker location-finding — is set to be used in handsets around the world.

However, Galileo — which should be fully operational by the end of 2008 — will supposedly provide greater accuracy, leaving some in the industry wondering whether they should invest in compatibility with GPS, Galileo or both (a path that appears to have been taken by the UK-based chipset manufacturer CSR). This indecision, said Curran at a conference held at the National Physical Laboratory on Thursday, is slowing things down.

"The Galileo timescales and deployment may actually hinder our adoption [of GNSS]," Curran told delegates at the Mobile and GPS/GNSS event in London. "We still need to have better engagement to see how they are going to deploy."

Speaking to ZDNet UK later, Curran explained that location-based services were slowly starting to mature through the use of Cell ID (a method of ascertaining location through the mobile signal, but which offers far lower accuracy than GPS), but were not being met by any testable information on what Galileo will have to offer.

"With Galileo not on stream yet, we can't use that signal. We don't know what the quality of service is at this point in time," said Curran, who complained of a lack of information from the EU team behind Galileo. "When do we change timing and synchronisation over to Galileo? Our people need to understand the rollout schedules clearly," he added.

The team behind Galileo had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

The importance of Galileo was also emphasised...

...by other figures at the event, such as Scott Stonham of Openwave, a company developing location software for handsets. Stonham said Galileo would "help drive political exposure" for location-based services, perhaps even driving a mandate for GNSS capabilities on handsets, as has happened in the US and Japan. There, the justification for the mandate has been to make it easier for emergency services to locate a caller who needs their help.

"I can't imagine Europe putting the lives of European citizens in the hands of a US-based technology," said Stonham. That view was echoed by Professor Jonathan Raper of City University, an authority on geographical information systems and location-based services, who also pointed out that "we cannot put ourselves in the hands of a system that can be turned off at any time by the US military".

Describing Galileo as a "European virility symbol", Raper said the system was not only of immense geopolitical importance, but also "evidence that Europe has got its technological self-confidence back". Crucially, said Raper, Galileo will be unlike GPS in that it has not been designed as a primarily military system with a free public side, but as a multi-layered and largely commercial venture. This has meant that a "grand coalition" of governments was needed to fund Galileo, and it has been "difficult to present all the technology until the alliance is stable".

"It has not been organised like a traditional product launch. Galileo is not being procured, it's being invented," Raper explained, calling the project "R&D in real time". "It is probably unique as a technological development [in that] the stakeholders are being found as they go along," Raper added, pointing out that the signal structure has only just been agreed. This agreement involved unprecedented concessions from the US military in exchange for a guarantee that Galileo would not interfere with GPS.

Although this complicated and delicate process is certainly progressing, with the launch of the first Galileo satellite in December, it is still leaving many in the mobile industry undecided.

"We all recognise that Galileo is important and we are tracking the deployments," Shekhar Somanath, of chipset-maker Qualcomm, told ZDNet UK. "But we need to see satellites up in the air and operators interested".

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