Europe’s Galileo satnav system is set to go live on 15 December, promising to outperform US and Russian rivals while boosting regional self-reliance.
Initial services will be available only on smartphones and navigation boxes already fitted with Galileo-compatible microchips.
Some devices may only need a software update to start using the new technology, and European Commission spokeswoman Mirna Talko said several smartphone giants were already making chips compatible with it.
Somewhat fuzzy at first, the signal will be boosted with help from satellites in the US military-run GPS system, growing stronger over time as orbiters are added to the now 18-strong Galileo network circling 23,222 kilometres above Earth.
According to the commission and the European Space Agency (ESA), Galileo should be fully operational by 2020, providing time and positioning data of unprecedented accuracy.
Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of France’s CNES space agency, said: “GPS allows a train to know which area it is in – Galileo will allow it to identify the track it is on.”
The civil-controlled service is also of great strategic importance for Europe, which relies on two military-run services – GPS and Russia’s GLONASS – which provide no guarantee of uninterrupted service.
George Abbey, a senior fellow in space policy at Rice University in Houston, US, said: “Having a system that is somewhat independent of the US system that is controlled by the military is probably a good thing.”
This would be especially pertinent “if there were some conflicts or disagreements … that would cause the US to have to limit GPS,” he told AFP news agency.
Named after Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, the project was first approved with an initial budget of around €3bn and planned to be operational by 2008.
However, it has suffered several technical and budgetary setbacks, including the launch of two satellites into the wrong orbit in 2014.