China set to complete its BeiDou satellite network, rival to GPS

Scott Tong Jun 2, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
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A satellite orbits Earth. China's network will have broad applications in the future. NASA/Newsmakers

China set to complete its BeiDou satellite network, rival to GPS

Scott Tong Jun 2, 2020
A satellite orbits Earth. China's network will have broad applications in the future. NASA/Newsmakers
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Later this month, China is set to launch an important location satellite into space. It’s the last satellite in its global network, which is an alternative — or perhaps competitor — to the network the U.S. built, known as GPS. The network has implications for Chinese industries and phone users everywhere.

Satellites are the building blocks of the multibillion-dollar location-services business. They power games like Pokemon Go and apps to track your drive, your run, your pizza delivery and even the whereabouts of your puppy.

The U.S. military built the world’s first global satellite-navigation system — GPS.

“You realize the ubiquity of GPS as a standard, as a global standard. It’s a feather in the United States’ cap, economically and influence-wise,” said Bill LaPlante, who oversaw satellite production at the Pentagon and now works for Mitre Corp.

Lately, Russia and the Europeans have built networks. And China’s about to complete its own, a $9 billion project called BeiDou. That’s Mandarin for “Big Dipper.” Like GPS, BeiDou gives its signals away free. 

So why the investment? Satellites bring know-how that leads to corporate spinoffs and new industries.

“I think this is China recognizing well the future of standards of precision-navigation timing and the markets. If we can control that, we are maybe a great power,” LaPlante said.  

That includes military power. During a showdown in the mid-’90s, China shot missiles toward Taiwan, but Chinese sources say the Americans cut off GPS signals to their precision weapons.

“You don’t get any information on your positioning. That’s the reason why China wanted to be independent and have their own satellite-navigation system,” said Stella Strataki, analyst at Northern Sky Research.

BeiDou already provides navigation to Chinese planes, cars and phones.

“China is pushing very hard for all of its national companies to have Beidou-enabled capability. So if you are Samsung or Apple, you have to make that call” whether to install chips that link to BeiDou, said Stephen Ganote, aerospace consultant at Avascent.

Beijing’s allies along the so-called Belt and Road initiative, an international development program, have also joined the Chinese orbit. 

And BeiDou has one feature that GPS doesn’t: satellite texting.

“If you’re text messaging over a BeiDou satellite and you are outside of cellular range, you essentially have a satellite text phone that you can use for a lot of purposes,” Ganote said.  

Many analysts think that in the future, your gadgets will likely talk to BeiDou as well as GPS.  

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