Thursday, May 10, 2007

Cost In Space

EU satnav assistant

The final frontier.

We all know that.

But are we all up to speed with Galileo, the EU's attempt to build its own Global Positioning System? We need to be, because the bills are starting to escalate wildly.

For those that don't know, our current GPS system- as used in satnav and loads of other applications- was built and is owned by the US military. They allow everyone else to use it because they haven't found a practical way to control usage.

Naturally, our EU commissars hate that kind of dependency: not only is it humiliating, but they reckon that some future US President might threaten to turn it off over Europe in order to force compliance with one or other foreign policy adventure. Never mind that any such action would be insane, causing huge damage to the US's own commercial interests here etc etc. And never mind that in such a situation, a whole load of other bets would be off too. According to the Commissars, US Presidents should always be treated as hostile.

So they embarked on this programme for 30 satellites and a raft of new untried technology. Cost? Well, EU taxpayers were going to contribute €1.5bn, but most of the money was supposedly coming from commercial suppliers like AENA, Alcatel, EADS, Finmeccanica, Hispasat, Inmarsat, TeleOp, and Thales.

Guess what. The supplying companies don't actually want to pay. They've discovered that for some reason most users would likely stick with the existing, dependable, and free US system.

What's more, in traditional EU style, suppliers and their sponsoring governments have spent most of their time bickering about dividing up the spoils (cf Airbus).

Now, the man responsible for pushing things forward- German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee- says:

"Galileo is in a profound and serious crisis. We're in a dead-end street. The cardinal problem is that the companies still have not been able to agree on the way forward. We need to find an alternative solution."

And the alternative solution?

"We will hope to find another form of financing, of distributing the cost (within) a public-private partnership."

Yup. That's right. More cost will be... er, distributed to us.

The immediate additional hit for taxpayers will be €2bn, pushing our total bill to €3.5bn. But of course that would be just the first of many salami slices to come. The project is aleady way behind schedule, with the first satellite launch put off from 2008 to at least 2011.

What chance Gordo could get off on the right foot with Europe by getting the whole thing canned?

Hmm. Thought not.

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