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Uncertainty 'hindering' Europe's mobile-navigation rollout

Poor communication from team behind EU's answer to GPS slows adoption of satellite navigation in handsets, wireless operator says. Images: Europe's GPS rival

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 wireless-service provider 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, or GNSS, functionality into phones, some companies within the industry are uncertain about which system to use.

The only satellite navigation system currently in action is GPS (Global Positioning System), the American radio navigation system designed and run by the U.S. 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 is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of 2008--will supposedly provide greater accuracy, a prediction that has left 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 United Kingdom-based chipset manufacturer CSR). This indecision, Curran said on Thursday at a conference held at Britain's National Physical Laboratory, is slowing things down.

"The Galileo time scales and deployment may actually hinder our adoption" of GNSS, Curran told delegates at the conference 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 are slowly starting to mature through the use of a technology called cell ID (a method of ascertaining location through the mobile signal that offers far less accuracy than GPS). Such services, however, are not being complemented by any testable information that Galileo might have to offer, he said.

"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 European Union team behind Galileo. "When do we change timing and synchronization over to Galileo? Our people need to understand the rollout schedules clearly," he added.

The team behind Galileo did not respond to a request for comment.

A European "virility symbol"
The importance of Galileo was emphasized 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 United States 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 U.S.-based technology," Stonham said. That view was echoed by Jonathan Raper, a professor at City University and an authority on geographical-information systems and location-based services. Raper pointed out that "we cannot put ourselves in the hands of a system that can be turned off at any time by the U.S. 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, Raper said, Galileo will be unlike GPS in that it has not been designed primarily as a military system with a free public side but as a multilayered 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 organized like a traditional product launch. Galileo is not being procured; it's being invented," Raper explained, saying the project's research and development is being done "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 upon. This agreement involved unprecedented concessions from the U.S. military in exchange for a guarantee that Galileo would not interfere with GPS.

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

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

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.