Russian Mandate Raises Concerns about GNSS Charges

 - January 3, 2013, 1:20 AM

It had always been ICAO’s intent that civil user services provided by the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) should be free of charges or user mandates, except for certain optional applications such as fee-bearing accuracy enhancements with performance guarantees. Europe’s Galileo is expected to offer such optional enhancements. But Russia has announced that it will mandate the carriage of receivers for its Glonass constellation in all aircraft on its civil aircraft register. GPS may also be used, but only when integrated with a Glonass receiver and its adjuncts. Publicly, ICAO has acknowledged that Russia’s mandate is within its sovereign rights, but individual national representatives at the ICAO Air Navigation Conference in November were unwilling to comment openly on the Russian position. Possibly, according to one representative, there is an underlying concern that Russia’s action might encourage other GNSS constellation owners to impose mandates. The unnamed but most likely candidate is China, which is making rapid progress toward completion of its GPS-like Compass global system.

Of the four global satellite navigation systems, the U.S. GPS and the Russian Glonass are currently operational, while Europe’s Galileo and China’s Compass are forecast to be fully operational by 2020. However, many observers believe that China–despite being a late starter–will be next to pass the finish line. In 2003 China did, in fact, pay some part of a reported $300 million fee to become a member of the European Galileo consortium, only to find itself quickly excluded from senior decision making. China then withdrew, opting to develop its own constellation.

Europe expected to have four Galileo validation satellites in orbit by the end of 2012, allowing conventional, GPS-like positioning at certain periods every 24 hours. In contrast, China expects by the same date to have 14 satellites in orbit providing continuous positioning beyond most of its national borders, as it moves inexorably toward global coverage.

So far, no nation operating or planning to operate a global or regional satellite augmentation system, such as the U.S. Waas or Europe’s Egnos, has announced its intent to charge for that service. On the other hand, all current or future navigation satellite operators may transmit encrypted military signals from their own satellites for national and other government purposes. The U.S. GPS satellites, for example, transmit encrypted signals–called the M-Code–for U.S. and certain NATO nations’ military forces. However, U.S. public GPS policy specifically forbids user restrictions or fees for the use of its civil GPS signals, since the system is freely offered worldwide due to its countless civil benefits.

Yet an incident early in 2012 caused strong misgivings within the U.S. and other foreign governments about the actual ownership and user protocols concerning GNSS intellectual property. As background, there is today a large number of researchers from several nations working on separate GNSS advancements, and in 2011 one research group had developed a complex yet successful interoperability technique to allow satellites from different constellations to be combined to make up the four signal sources required for a navsat position fix. But the group’s two British lead researchers then overstepped the mark early last year when they applied for patent protection on the technique, reportedly in their own names, and approached receiver manufacturers with proposals for royalty payments. The two researchers were employed by a commercial affiliate of the British Ministry of Defense, thereby creating a high level of embarrassment for the UK government.

How the situation was resolved was not made public, but the patent applications were eventually withdrawn late last year. Fortunately, these are early days in the full development and deployment of the world GNSS network, and AIN understands that GNSS officials are developing more stringent procedures to avoid such situations in the future.