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About That Cover

Glen Gibbons
The more understandable signals are among different GNSS systems - and the better they are understood by GNSS receiver designers - the better the products and user experience will be.

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I opened the PDF with this month’s cover design from our art director, Tim Jordan, about five minutes after I picked up the morning newspaper. In the paper, a front-page article described our local school district’s plans for starting what would eventually become a 12-year immersion program in Mandarin (putonghua or guoyu).

To my way of thinking, the news about the school program was just one more confirmation of our decision not merely to highlight two articles on China’s Compass program on our cover, but to add it to the galaxy of GNSS systems on Inside GNSS’s masthead.

Of course, I don’t have to hide behind a bunch of school kids to justify that decision. The Bush administration’s Department of Education has put a premium on learning Chinese through its Foreign Language Assistance Program that has doled out $100 million in grants over the past seven years. And, for reasons of its own, the Defense Department has tossed millions more into the language-training pot.

In the GNSS sphere, China has joined the UN-supported International Committee on GNSS and undoubtedly will sit in that group’s GNSS Providers Forum as the committee’s work evolve.

So, for the same advantages that multilingual skills bring, it probably makes sense for us to start learning Compass. After all, GNSS signals are a sort of lingua franca for satellite-based positioning, navigation, and timing. And the more understandable those signals are among different GNSS systems — and the better they are understood by GNSS receiver designers — the better the products and user experience will be.

If that understanding turns to increased cooperation among GNSS system providers, all the better. Because compatibility and even commonality of open signal designs, as well as interoperability of GNSS systems, add to the power of the technology in the hands of product designers and end users.

That doesn’t mean that system operators can’t do their own thing, too. Every GNSS so far has or will have at least one encrypted, secure service for special needs. Just because everybody serves vanilla ice cream doesn’t mean that they can’t have caramel mocha fudge on the menu, too.

Now, it’s true that an element of uncertainty, even mystery, surrounds Compass. Several different versions of the configuration of the satellite constellation have been reported. China’s apparent dual-track approach to GNSS development — partnering with Europe on the Galileo program while filing with the International Telecommunications Union for Compass frequency allocations — has puzzled some people.

By its ambitious pushing ahead with two Compass launches so far this year, observers assumed that China might abandon Galileo, from which it had sought — but thus far been denied — access to the encrypted Public Regulated Service (PRS).

However, during March meetings with a European Galileo delegation, Jianlin Cao, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Science & Technology emphasized the significance and urgency for China to join the Galileo Supervisory Authority and the Galileo Operating Company — the enterprise expected to eventually manage the Galileo system.

Even the name of the system itself — apparently changing from Beidou to Compass — has caused some confusion. But the underlying characters with which China refers to the system — alluding to the Northern Dipper constellation — remain the same. Thus, in addition to perhaps increasing the eventual marketability of the system internationally, rebranding Beidou provides a subtle reminder that the first documented demonstration of a magnetic compass came in the 11th century Song Dynasty.

Presumably, all these matters will become clear in time.

Meanwhile, we have a choice about whether we engage — or ignore — the emergence of new global navigation satellite systems.

When it comes to speaking the language of GNSS, we can have the Rosetta Stone or we can have the Tower of Babel. 

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