Monday, January 06, 2014

Hot Three-way Global Satellite Action!

          by Brian Orlotti

Carl von Clausewitz.
German military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz once said that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Recent moves in the global satellite navigation market by the US, Russia and China suggest that space is the continuation of trade wars by other means.

On Dec 26th 2013, US President Barack Obama signed a defense budget bill into law effectively banning Russia from building ground stations for its GLObalnaya NAvigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS) satellite navigation system on US soil.

The Republican-backed bill requires the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence to provide proof to the US Congress that the monitoring stations would not be used to spy on the US, or pose any threat to US national security.

The law does include provisions for the US Congress to waive the need for proof, though political pundits consider such a waiver unlikely.

In 2012, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) first pitched the idea of building six GLONASS antenna arrays and monitoring stations in the US to the US State Department. The structures would help improve GLONASS’ accuracy and reliability vis-à-vis the US’ own Global Positioning System (GPS). GLONASS is being marketed as a global alternative to GPS, in addition to serving Russia’s military and civilian markets.

According to the December 23rd, 2013 New York Times article "New Law All but Bars Russian GPS Sites in US," the US State Department had supported the building of the stations as a way to ease rocky relations between the US and Russia brought about by disagreements over such issues as Edward Snowden and the Syrian civil war.

However, US Republicans, suspicious of Russia’s motives, moved to sink the initiative. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), supposedly concerned over Russian spying within US borders, sided with the Republicans.

As for the Russians, they were certainly confused by this turn of events. The December 31st, 2013 Voice of Russia article "US bans Russia's GLONASS for spying,"  quoted Alexei Smyatskikh, General Director of the SpaceTeam Group (a GLONASS systems integrator) as stating:
There are no restrictions on GPS signal reception or use in Russia or anywhere in the world. We have always been open to cooperation. All specialists have always said and continue saying that customers will benefit much more by using both systems - the GLONASS-GPS combination - than by using just one.
Russia had hoped to boost GLONASS’ competitive advantage by using it in tandem with GPS to boost accuracy, especially on mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets). As outlined by the December 29th, 2013 Technoblimp article "Russia's GLONASS Essentially Banned from the US by New Law," many mobile device manufacturers (including Apple, Sony, and HTC) already use GLONASS compatible chipsets on their devices since Russian law requires them to. As outlined on their corporate website under the headline "GPS and GLONASS: “Dual-core" Location For Your Phone," Qualcomm Corporation, a US based provider of digital wireless telecommunications products and services, conducted tests in 2011 that showed using GLONASS and GPS signals together boosted location accuracy to 2 meters.

Enter the Dark Horse: China.

On Dec 27th 2013, the China Satellite Navigation Office announced that China will provide free global access to its Beidou satellite navigation system by 2020. The Beidou system currently consists of 16 satellites, but starting in 2014, China will begin deploying new satellites with upgraded capabilities. Plans call for Beidou to be expanded to a constellation of 40 satellites by 2020, providing global coverage and improving positional accuracy from the current 10 meters to 2.5 meters. Chinese smartphone manufacturers are now incorporating Beidou chipsets into their products, which will arrive on retail shelves this year.

China also announced its first foreign Beidou customer, Thailand. As outlined in the December 27th, 2013 article, "Thailand to become first overseas user of Beidou," Thailand’s Space Technology Development Agency is currently building a Beidou ground station near Bangkok. Thailand plans to use the Beidou system for disaster response.

In essence, after decades of US dominance, alternatives to the US based GPS are now coming to the forefront. In the coming decades, competition will intensify from Russia’s GLONASS and China’s Beidou as well as in-development systems like the European Union’s Galileo global navigation satellite system and India’s Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS). The United States’ obstruction of GLONASS ground stations could be seen as a protectionist move aimed at stymying foreign competition; a preview perhaps of things to come.

Brian Orlotti.
The increasing role of space as an area of commerce could serve to bring nations together or provide the basis for future conflict (as with the Opium Wars of the 19th century). The coming decades will show which path the world chooses.

In the words of the old Chinese blessing/curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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