Why China and other countries are building alternatives to GPS

October 30th

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is like Google, Kleenex, or YouTube -- an entity so successful that its name represents an entire market. But GPS, which is built and operated by the US Air Force, has competitors. Other systems, like Russian-developed Glonass, complement GPS coverage. Galileo, an EU project, was designed to be more secure.

Instead of working together to maintain a standard global service, a handful of countries have developed their own systems, largely to avoid having to rely on one another.

"Satellite positioning has already become the standard means of navigating," says a 2014 European Space Agency press release. "If the signals were switched off or degraded tomorrow, many ship and aircraft crews would find it inconvenient and difficult to revert to traditional navigation methods."

Fears of access loss or denial are not unfounded. During the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999, the US refused to provide India with GPS data that would help its military study the terrain. For India, the access denial was a reminder of who owns the system.

A year later, in 2000, US President Bill Clinton signed a bill ending a practice called Selective Availability, which had until then broken GPS access into two classes-- one for US military use, and a degraded version for public signals. But that didn't convince the Indian government. As a result of the 1999 incident, they developed their own positioning system, the IRNSS.

In the same year that President Clinton ended Selective Availability, China launched the first satellites that would make up their BeiDou posititioning system.

BeiDou, which means "Big Dipper" in Chinese, has offered navigation services to people from Australia to Southern Russia since 2012. Thailand was the service's first foreign client in 2013.

The project announced it would provide service to Belt and Road-participating countries in 2019, and plans to cover the entire globe by 2020.

Domestically, the Chinese government has issued quotas for buses, taxis, and trains to adopt BeiDou's navigation and location service.