BeiDou Global Satellite System Lights Up

China’s answer to GPS, Galileo and GLONASS enters operation

At the end of July, China announced the completion and commissioning of the third stage of its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. The newly commissioned service rivals the global coverage of the US GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo satellite constellations. It will provide positioning and data transfer services to transportation, emergency medical rescue and city planning and management users around the world.

Since the 1980s, the US has provided GPS signals to users worldwide free of cost. The GPS is owned by the US government and operated by the US Air Force. The US has not been alone in offering location data. Russia has a similar system called GLONASS, and the EU has Galileo. Of these navigation systems, the GPS is the most widely used for both personal navigation and for sensitive military purposes. India and Japan have smaller regional systems.

China initiated BeiDou in 1994 with an aim to integrate its positioning data in various sectors and as a hedge against reliance on foreign-operated systems. BeiDou is meant to provide highly accurate global positioning services, as well as a means to transfer limited amounts of data, for commercial and military purposes.

The first BeiDou satellite entered orbit in 2000, and started providing positioning, navigation, timing and messaging services to users in China. In December 2012, the system started providing services to users in the Asia-Pacific region. It uses a network of about 30 satellites and can provide positional accuracy of less than five meters.

BeiDou is representative of China’s push to build and offer commercial alternatives to Western technology platforms. Its efforts span everything from smartphones and 5G equipment to operating systems, social networks, servers and satellites.

BeiDou enjoys considerable success in its home market: more than 70% of smartphones in China use BeiDou location services, and its high-precision services have attracted more than 500 million subscribers. But it’s the growing number of BeiDou users outside China that adds to its geopolitical and economic clout. The third and latest stage of the BeiDou system can now provide positioning and data transfer services to more than 100 countries taking part in China’s Belt and Road initiative — a swathe of countries from Central Asia to Europe with which Beijing has established trade, infrastructure and debt deals.

The BeiDou satellite system gains extra significance given growing economic and political rivalry between the US and China. The Chinese government wants the country to have its own navigation system beyond foreign control, especially as governments are able to selectively deny access to satellite systems. The completion of the decades-long effort with BeiDou illustrates how China has been making plans for the long haul for quite some time.