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The small matter of a few billion sat-nav euros

Jonathan Amos | 13:15 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

So, the European Commission has hunted down that statistic I mentioned on Friday which shows just how reliant the European economy now is on GPS.

I asked the EC to explain what was a fairly astonishing figure that appeared with the Mid-Term Review [200KB PDF] on the status of Galileo, Europe's answer to the American Global Positioning System.

Galileo will see its first "pathfinder" satellites launch this year - the spacecraft that will prove the system works end-to-end.

Rather than add to the bottom of the previous posting, I thought I'd give the explanation some space of its own. Just to repeat the figure:

"It is estimated that currently 6-7% of GDP of developed countries, €800bn in Europe, depends on satellite navigation."

The Commission tells me this assessment is based on several US studies and in particular on one from the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University, which identified the industrial sectors most exposed to sat-nav technology. These were listed as:

  • Delivery services
  • Utilities
  • Banking & Financial
  • Agriculture
  • Communications 

The GW study estimated the combined contribution of these sectors to US GDP to be $1,342bn, or about 9.5% of GDP in 2009. This was deemed to be a conservative assessment.

In the 27-member EU, these same sectors account for over 10 % of GDP (i.e. some €1,236bn). But a further assessment was then undertaken to try to establish the actual share of these sectors' contributions to GDP that is being impacted by sat-nav. This assessment returned the following observations:

Delivery services: Reliance was deemed to be 100%. The rationale was that fleet management and parcel tracking by sat-nav is used by all freight forwarders and couriers.

Utilities: Exposure was estimated to be 60%. The rationale here was that transmission and distribution networks such as electricity grids rely on sat-nav timing for synchronization.

Banking & Financial: The impact was estimated to be 35%. As I suspected last Friday, this relates to all those Big Money transactions that are stamped with GPS time.

Agriculture: The impact was considered to be 10%. This relates to so called "precision agriculture" whereby field management (spraying, etc) on the biggest farms across the EU is done with the assistance of GPS in the tractor or combine cabin.

Communications: The exposure was estimated to be 40%. The rationale here is that mobile phone turnover accounts for 40% of telecom turnover in the EU. Something like 300 million smartphones were shipped globally last year, with Europe one of the key markets. Does any modern smartphone not contain a GPS chip? It's hard to imagine a handset manufacturer omitting such a feature.

So, when this assessment was done, the conclusion it drew was that the sat-nav-sensitive contribution of these industries to EU-27 GDP was potentially 6-7%, or about €800bn.

In some countries within the EU-27, this figure will no doubt be more; in others, less. For example, consider the importance of the financial sector to the UK. How many of those big transactions in the City of London go through a server in the "back office" that uses GPS time.

To re-state - the point here is not really the accuracy of these estimations because, as I said, even if they off by a substantial margin, they remain huge. Rather, the point is to underscore the importance of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to the modern economy.

This is the background against which Galileo has to be considered, and what member states have to keep in mind when they decide whether or not to fund the extra 1.9bn euros needed to complete Galileo's roll-out by the decade's end.

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