Europe's orbiting dilemma

Galileo figures role. Magnifico?

Location aware services have been the next big thing for a few years. The car-satnav market is roaring ahead, mobile phones and laptops are beginning to know where they are, and among the melee of maps, mash-ups and marketing ideas there must be some new ideas that'll turn into profit.

But while you might think of GPS as merely the best way to find Aunty Alice in Dumfries, the technology is actually one of the most telling indicators for the 21st century's evolving geo-political power struggles. Despite globalisation, free trade and long-term best buddyhood the three big blocs of America, Europe and Asia still don't know how far to trust each other — nor, really, what they are themselves

GPS is such a good test case because it touches so many raw nerves. It's essential to so much of the logistics that keep the material economy going that the lack of it would hit any economy hard. Yet it's also essential for state security: a modern army without GPS is unthinkable, let alone the postmodern sort where the battles are fought by mobile machines. Do you really want to have all of that in the hands of another country, without so much as a letter of agreement between you to guarantee service? America has made a big show of being able to turn GPS off in one location while keeping it going elsewhere: this has not gone unnoticed.

And the alternative — launching your own — is very tempting. There's the sheer thrusting national joy of having your own space technology, together with all those potential spin-offs that you can funnel to your local economy. Plus, there's the altruistic realisation that the more redundancy there is in orbit — the more systems, the more satellites — the more reliable and accurate the whole system becomes. Many mission-critical GPS uses can't be sanctioned because the single-system approach isn't reliable enough.

Europe got tempted. It decided to build its own satellite navigation system called Galileo — primarily because it didn't want to be beholden to the US for an essential defence system. Europe being Europe, though, it was impossible to build a cross-Union defence system because you'll never get the states to agree on spending and strategy. So, the official focus was on the business case, return on investment and so on. That was an easier sell.

Now, this sort of works on paper, providing you have an international market and don't look at the figures too closely. In this case, Europe reckoned, Asia would love to sign up to a non-American system — giving Galileo preferred status in China and India. Indeed, both countries were very keen. China was particularly up for it, and invested €200m (£135m) or around eight percent of the planned total €2.5bn bill. This made the numbers look even more plausible.

Thing is, the Chinese are developing a habit of going along with external technology for just long enough to get the hang of it, and then deciding to do their own thing. That's happened with DVDs, 3G phones and wireless security. Now it's happening with satellite location systems — China has said that its purely military, purely China-coverage Beidou system will have a commercial side, and there are already signs that the People's Liberation Army (which runs a large number of companies) is pressuring its suppliers to adopt the local system.

With the Asian market no longer in the bag, Galileo now makes a lot less commercial sense than it used to — not that it ever did. The Americans, meanwhile, are increasingly unhappy about all this: the Pentagon has a policy called "Total Spectrum Dominance", which includes among other joys a commitment to absolute control of space for military purposes. This does not include the rapid proliferation of other people's satnav: there have already been quite aggressive diplomatic moves to damp down Galileo. This ties in quite disturbingly well with a backlash against outsourcing and a fear, fanned by politicians who should know better, that by trying to be a good international country the US has given away the farm.

And just to complete the picture, Russia keeps saying it'll revitalise its system, GLONASS, which has been hanging around the skies in a state of semi-disrepair for decades. India's taking part in that too.

In an ideal world, there'd be one satellite navigation system built to extreme levels of reliability and available to all nations, run by an independent NGO. That's how Inmarsat started, providing international maritime satellite services to all under the auspices of the UN and ITU. Indeed, Inmarsat has dabbled its toes in the waters of location — but has been ignored by the warring parties.

It's not an ideal world, so it makes sense for Europe to have its own satellite navigation system. It doesn't make sense to disguise it as a commercial project, because it isn't, and given that Europe is a past master of spending lots of money on silly things there really should be a way to present it for what it is without having to pretend it's ever going to turn a cent. But then we go down the road of European defence strategy, which has no enemy in the world a tenth as threatening to Union cohesion as itself.

And that's the map as revealed by satellite navigation systems: an uneasy America, perhaps poised for a populist Democratic administration tempted by deglobalisation and "getting the jobs back from abroad"; a confused and uncertain Europe, and a separatist, go-it-alone China not in the mood to be bound by international convention. Heaven knows about the Russians.

So next time someone tries to sell you the idea that location aware services are the wave of the future, be sure to ask exactly what that future looks like. They may be righter than they know.