BRUSSELS -- EU ministers in Brussels have voted to let the Czech Republic host the headquarters of a planned European satellite navigation tool that could rival the U.S. government's Global Positioning System (GPS).
Ministers from EU member states chose Prague to be the host city for the agency charged with developing the Galileo satellite navigation technology. The agency -- the European GNSS Supervisory Authority -- has already been operating for three years out of Brussels.
In an interview with Czech television, Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas called the decision a success for the entire country.
"This is very good news because this will bring the most advanced technologies to the Czech Republic and, accordingly, one of most technologically advanced systems in the European Union will be controlled from here, from the Czech Republic," he said.
The Galileo system was taken over by the EU in 2007 after the public-private partnership developing it collapsed. It is set to be operational by 2014.
Several countries were vying to host the agency and in the final days Prague was competing against the Dutch town of Noordwijk to secure the agency's headquarters.
Before the vote, the Czech Republic was one of only four member states that joined the EU in 2004 which had not yet been chosen to host an EU agency or body.
The tasks to be fulfilled by the Prague-based agency will include security accreditation and the operation of the Galileo security center, as well as the commercialization of the European GNSS systems.
One of the goals of the $4.5 billion Galileo project is to give the EU independence from GPS, which is owned by the U.S. government. The only other satellite navigation tool for European consumers or governments is the Russian GLONASS system. Many in the EU have worried that being dependent on foreign governments for satellite navigation puts Europe in a militarily weak position.
Several countries have been working for decades to try and develop satellite navigation systems that would be independent of the U.S. GPS. China is developing its own rival BeiDou navigation system that is intended to first be used by its military. According to the China National Space Administration, the system is aiming to cover China by 2012 and the world by 2020.
Allan Brimicombe, head of the Center for Geo-Information Studies at the University of East London, said countries like Russia and China "worry that America could downgrade or even switch [GPS] off selectively in their corners of the world," adding, "In the EU, the thinking is similar."
On December 5, Russia's GLONASS navigation system suffered a major setback when three of its satellites failed to reach orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, about 1,500 kilometers north of the U.S. state of Hawaii.
The crash is estimated to have cost Russia $162 million and has likely delayed Moscow's goal of achieving 100 percent coverage for its system.
The United States has always maintained that GPS is a neutral technology. But during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war there were accusations that GPS signals were blocked or blurred. Those accusations added urgency to Russia's desire to complete its own system.
The EU has been more hesitant to brand its developing system as a rival to the American GPS and has emphasized its compatibility with GPS technology. But Galileo is expected to have significant improvements over GPS, including giving users faster and more reliable tracking and pinpointing locations more exactly instead of the current GPS range of several meters.
Earlier this year, a consortium of German and British companies was asked to provide the first operational spacecraft for the system. The first satellites are scheduled to be finished and ready for launch in the second half of 2012. By early 2014 it is expected that there could be up to 16 spacecraft in the Galileo network.