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Friday, 7 December, 2001, 17:22 GMT
EU satellite project may never fly
Galileo project website, WWW
Project architects hope operations will start in 2008
European transport ministers have dealt a potentially fatal blow to plans for the continent to develop its own satellite global positioning system to rival those of the Russian and US militaries.

The European Union had agreed in principle to back the project, dubbed Galileo, which would have put 30 satellites in orbit 23,000 kilometres (14,000 miles) above the Earth by 2007.

By delaying, by asking for more and more reports and other supplementary verifications, Galileo will lose a good part of its (financial) interest and thus its profitability

Loyola de Palacio
EU Transport Commissioner
But at a meeting in Brussels, a majority of the 15 EU ministers said they needed another three months before they could decide whether to stump up the 450m euros Galileo needed as seed funding.

The whole project could cost upwards of 3bn euros, with the first 1.25bn euros paid for by the European Commission and the European Space Agency.

Public payout

While the scheme's proponents see huge benefits, and most EU states are in principle in favour, the intense budget pressure afflicting most countries makes the cost and the long lead time before payback unattractive.

The subject is expected to come up at the EU summit in Laeken, Belgium, on 14-15 December.

But the project needs unanimous approval, and there seems little likelihood that minds will change by then.

Britain and the Netherlands have already questioned the timing and Germany has raised issues over costs.

In contrast, France and Italy, whose aerospace industries both stand to benefit from the system, are fervent backers.

One major sticking point - which came to light at a summit last March - is leaders' reluctance to contribute finance to the project without any guarantee that private investors would definitely come onboard.

If the scheme does get off the ground, it would cost about 220m euros a year to run.

EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is now threatening to drop the project altogether unless agreement is reached by the end of the year.

"By delaying, by asking for more and more reports and other supplementary verifications, Galileo will lose a good part of its (financial) interest and thus its profitability," she said.

Getting the bird

Systems that use satellite navigation are in increasing demand both by private users who want directions and by business as a means of keeping track of vehicles and personnel and for surveying work.

Mobile phones with built-in location finders are also coming on the market, and a range of applications are already being designed to take advantage of this facility.

At the moment, the users of satellite navigation have to rely on either the US GPS or Russia's GLONASS network.

Their primary role has been as systems for the armed forces, which has meant civilian users being given deliberately downgraded information; the more accurate data have been reserved for the military.

And neither system will guarantee access, reserving the right to cut off private users should extra capacity be needed or national security be invoked.

Galileo was meant to provide a more reliable, more accurate service unbeholden to military necessity.

See also:

04 Dec 01 | Business
Funding doubts for Galileo project
04 Dec 01 | Business
EU eyes German budget deficit
21 Sep 01 | Business
EU finance ministers in crisis talks
15 Nov 01 | Business
Niue's astronomical economic plan
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