The GPS wars have begun

Where are you? That’s not just a metaphysical question, but increasingly a geopolitical challenge that is putting tech giants like Apple and Alphabet in a tough position. Countries around the world, including China, Japan, India, and the United Kingdom plus the European Union are exploring, testing, and deploying satellites to build out their own positioning […]

Where are you? That’s not just a metaphysical question, but increasingly a geopolitical challenge that is putting tech giants like Apple and Alphabet in a tough position.

Countries around the world, including China, Japan, India, and the United Kingdom plus the European Union are exploring, testing, and deploying satellites to build out their own positioning capabilities.

That’s a massive change for the United States, which for decades has had a practical monopoly on determining the location of objects through its Global Positioning System (GPS), a military service of the Air Force built during the Cold War that has allowed commercial uses since mid-2000 (for a short history of GPS, check this article out, or for the comprehensive history, here’s the book-length treatment).

Owning GPS has a number of advantages, but the first and most important is that global military and commercial users depend on this service of the U.S. government, putting location targeting ultimately at the mercy of the Pentagon. The development of the technology and the deployment of positioning satellites also provides a spillover advantage for the space industry.

Today, the only global alternative to that system is Russia’s GLONASS, which reached full global coverage a couple of years ago following an aggressive program by Russian president Vladimir Putin to rebuild it after it had degraded following the break up of the Soviet Union.

Now, a number of other countries want to reduce their dependency on the US and get those economic benefits. Perhaps no where is that more obvious than with China, which has made building out a global alternative to GPS a top national priority. It’s Beidou (北斗 – “Big Dipper”) navigation system has been slowly building up since 2000, mostly focused on providing service in Asia.

Now, though, China hopes to accelerate the launch of Beidou satellites and provide worldwide positioning services. As the Financial Times noted a few weeks ago, China has launched 11 satellites in the Beidou constellation just this year — almost half of the entire network, and it hopes to expand by another dozen satellites by 2020. That would make it one of the largest systems in the world when fully deployed.

A Long March-3B carrier rocket carrying the 24th and 25th Beidou navigation satellites takes off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on November 5, 2017 in Xichang, China. Photo by Wang Yulei/CHINA NEWS SERVICE/VCG via Getty Images

China is not just putting satellites into orbit though, but demanding that local smartphone manufacturers include Beidou positioning chips in their devices. Today, devices from a number of major manufacturers including Huawei and Xiaomi use the system, along with GPS and Russia’s GLONASS as well.

That puts American smartphone leaders like Alphabet and particularly Apple in a bind. For Apple, which prides itself on providing one unified iPhone device worldwide, the disintegration of the monopoly around GPS presents a quandary: does it offer a unique device for the Chinese market capable of handling Beidou, or does it add Beidou chips to its phones worldwide and run into trouble with U.S. national security authorities?

The complexity doesn’t stop there. China may be the most aggressive in launching its alternative to GPS and also the most bullish in providing worldwide coverage, but it is not alone in pursuing its own system.

Japan has made launching a space program a national priority to compete with China and rejuvenate its economy, and one critical component of that program is building out a positioning system. The Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (準天頂衛星システム), which has cost ¥120 billion ($1.08 billion) to date, is designed to augment GPS with more coverage of Japan and also trigger an estimated ¥2.4 trillion ($21.58 billion) in economic benefits.

Using this new system comes at a huge cost due to lack of manufacturing scale. As the Nikkei Asian Review noted a few weeks ago, “The high price of receivers is a hurdle, however. Mitsubishi Electric on Thursday began selling receivers accurate to within a few centimeters — at a price of several million yen, or tens of thousands of dollars, apiece.” The additional location accuracy in Japan may well be necessary for autonomous cars, but auto manufactures will need to lower costs quickly if they want to include the technology in their vehicles.

Like Japan, India has similarly pursued a GPS-augmenting system known as IRNSS, and it has now launched seven satellites to increase coverage of the subcontinent. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which is expected to leave the European Union in March following the referendum over Brexit, will most likely lose access to the EU’s Galileo positioning system, and is planning on launching its own. As for Galileo itself, it is expected to be fully operational in 2019.

In short, the world has moved from one system (GPS) to arguably seven. And while Chinese manufacturers increasingly have GPS, GLONASS and Beidou installed on one chip, that scale may only work in a country the size of China. In Japan, where the smartphone market is saturated and the population is less than a tenth of China, the scale required to lower prices may well be harder to find. It will be even tougher in the United Kingdom, for the same reasons.

Theoretically, one positioning chip could be designed to incorporate all of these different systems, but that might run afoul of US national security laws, particularly in regards to GLONASS and Beidou. Which means that much as the internet is fragmenting into disparate poles, we might soon find that our smartphone positioning chips need to fragment as well in order to handle these local markets. That will ultimately mean higher prices for consumers, and tougher supply chains for manufacturers.

FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo. No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6s, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.