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China Inches Toward GPS Dominance With BeiDou Satellites

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China’s BeiDou satellite network is now more than 80 percent complete and is en route to disrupting America’s 40-year GPS dominance.

Every one of your Lyft rides, Strava KOMs, and wake-up alarms are in the hands of the U.S. Air Force. That’s because the United States has owned the entire Global Positioning System (GPS) network since the military launched the first satellite in 1978.

And up until now, that network has been the largest and most reliable satellite positioning system on Earth. But this month, China launched three more satellites into orbit, bringing its growing BeiDou network to more than 40 strong. That makes it larger than both America’s GPS network (31) and Russia’s GLONASS system (24).

For now, the BeiDou system serves China and its neighbors. But Chinese President Xi Jinping has said it will serve the entire globe by 2020. And Chinese officials have claimed BeiDou will be over 100 times more accurate than GPS.

“It will be a change from 10 metres, to decimetres, to centimetres,” China Satellite Navigation Office director Ran Chengqi told Chinese media. “For example, if we hail a cab with a mobile phone with such accuracy, we don’t need to tell the driver where we stand, because the car will arrive directly at our feet.”

BeiDou vs. GPS

China launches its 38th BeiDou satellite in March 2018; photo courtesy BeiDou Navigation Satellite System

When complete, the undertaking will prove no small investment. According to The Straits Times, the BeiDou project will wind up costing about $12 billion. So why pour in so much money and time — China began the BeiDou project nearly 20 years ago — especially when GPS is so freely available?

Remember, GPS is owned by the U.S. military. And that makes the GPS network a tremendous advantage in times of conflict. Naval ships and aircraft rely heavily on such positioning systems. So BeiDou will grant China some leverage and autonomy.

But the satellite navigation market is also a lucrative one. Grand View Research estimates that by 2025, GPS market size will be worth almost $150 billion. And if BeiDou proves more accurate, it would translate into big revenue.

It’s not just speculation; Chinese chipmaker NavInfo, which supplies navigation tech for Tesla and BMW, expects demand for 15 million BeiDou-linked chips by 2020, according to Bloomberg. And massive smartphone companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, and Huawei all support BeiDou in addition to GPS.

In all, China expects its satellite navigation business to top $57 billion by 2020, according to Xinhua.

Satellite Navigation Options

So, how will this impact end users like hikers, Strava athletes, and others? While it’s not totally clear how BeiDou will shake up the sat-nav industry for consumers, it could be a boon.

Earlier this month, leading countries convened for the 13th meeting of the United Nations International Committee of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (ICG) in China. Representatives from the U.S., China, Russia, and the EU — which is building the Galileo satellite positioning network — discussed how the systems can work together.

According to a column on the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System website, the representatives released a joint statement calling for “major providers [to] further enhance system compatibility, interoperability, technology innovation, service transparency as well as cooperation and exchange.”

If that happens, adventurers might see the most expansive and accurate positioning systems to date. Of course, global tensions may inhibit cooperation in systems with such close ties to military operations.

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