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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 July 2007, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
UK presses private Galileo role
Artist's impression of SSTL's Galileo test satellite (Esa)
The minister paid tribute to the UK-built Giove-A is test satellite
The UK says it still believes the private sector should share the risk and the cost of developing Europe's satellite-navigation system, Galileo.

The multi-billion-euro project has been beset with delays and a budget overrun.

And in May, the European Commission abandoned negotiations with a private consortium to help it build the system.

But new UK transport minister Rosie Winterton said the commercial sector should still have a role in developing the new sat-nav service.

"Galileo is considered a key [European] Community project, but we are clear that it cannot be carried out at any price; it has to be affordable, and it has to be value for money," she told a House of Commons debate on the project on Monday.

"It needs better governance and risk management, open competition and a firm focus on the opportunities for getting the private sector to share the costs and risks."

The four-billion-euro (2.7bn) system is supposed to be functional by the end of 2012.

Its 30 satellites will beam radio signals to receivers on the ground, helping users pinpoint their locations.

Detailed comparison

As originally envisaged, Galileo was supposed to be a public-private partnership (PPP), with European member states funding the early development phase and a private concession covering the cost of completing the infrastructure and then operating it.

Artist's impression of Galileo constellation, Esa
A European Commission and European Space Agency project
30 satellites to be launched in batches by end of 2011-12
Will work alongside US GPS and Russian Glonass systems
Promises real-time positioning down to less than a metre
Guaranteed under all but most extreme circumstances
Suitable for safety-critical roles where lives depend on service

But the negotiations to achieve this have floundered and the Commission is recommending the whole building phase be done with public funds, a proposal that will require Europe's ministers to release an extra one billion euros over and above the funds they were probably going to have to make available under the failed PPP.

Ms Winterton said the British government shared the belief that Galileo would help bring forward an array of new applications for sat-nav, and represented a real opportunity for UK companies to exploit.

However, she said the government - which has so far committed about 148m euros to Galileo - was still determined to see a strong private input into the project.

And she added that the UK had called for a detailed cost-benefit comparison between continuing with a PPP and opting for a public procurement programme. This should be fed into any final decision on the future direction of Galileo expected to be agreed by EU member states in October, she said.

Ms Winterton paid tribute to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, the small company that had built the first Galileo test spacecraft, which has been operating perfectly in orbit for more than 18 months.

Alternative's worth

"If Galileo is to work for the Community, we need more successes like that across Europe. Unfortunately, for a majority of our European partners, the failure of flawed negotiations has tainted the idea of a public-private partnership," the minister said.

"In that context, there is a risk that people tend to fall back on what they know - in this case, public procurement - as the safe option. By doing so, frankly, they ignore the facts."

A number of MPs in the debate expressed concern about the rising costs of the space project, and Tobias Ellwood doubted a commercial case for the project could ever be justified, especially since the American Global Positioning System (GPS) already delivered an excellent service.

"The biggest question that the House must answer is why on Earth we are devoting so much money to the project when there already exists a very decent system run by the Americans," the Conservative member for Bournemouth East said.

"Why are we going ahead with it when something that is free already exists?"

But Montgomeryshire Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik said increasing dependence on sat-nav demanded there be an alternative to GPS.

"The aviation business increasingly depends on global positioning system technology, but there is no redundancy," he explained.

"We have no alternative method of positioning, using satellites, so if the system goes down - and it can - it will create a grave danger to aviation. ...the principle of ensuring redundancy in such an essential navigation system must surely be right?"

Sat-nav GNSS Schematic (BBC)
Satellite navigation systems determine a position by measuring the distances to a number of known locations - the Galileo satellites
The distance to one satellite defines a sphere of possible solutions; the distances to four satellites defines a single, common area
The accuracy of the distance measurements determines how small the common area is and thus the accuracy of the final location
In practice, a receiver captures atomic-clock time signals sent from the satellites and converts them into the respective distances
The whole system is monitored from the ground to ensure satellite clocks do not drift and give out misleading timings

Ministers agreed on Galileo funds
08 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature
Taxpayers 'should build Galileo'
16 May 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe launches Galileo satellite
28 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Navigating future for road charges
29 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature

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