China has opened up its domestic satellite navigation network, a rival to the American GPS, across the Asia-Pacific region.
The Beidou system started providing services to civilians in the region on Thursday and is expected to provide global coverage by 2020, state media reported.
China began building the network in 2000, to avoid relying on the global positioning system or GPS. It comprises 16 navigation satellites and four experimental satellites.
Ran Chengqi, spokesman for the China Satellite Navigation Office, said the system’s performance was ‘comparable’ to GPS, the China Daily said.
‘Signals from Beidou can be received in countries such as Australia,’ he said.
It is the latest accomplishment in space technology for China, which aims to build a space station by the end of the decade and eventually send a manned mission to the moon.
China sees the multi-billion-dollar programme as a symbol of its rising global stature and growing technical expertise.
The start of commercial services comes a year after Beidou – which literally means the Big Dipper in Chinese – began a limited positioning service for China and adjacent areas.
Mr Ran added that the system would ultimately provide global navigation, positioning and timing services.
‘Having a satellite navigation system is of great strategic significance,’ the Global Times newspaper, which has links to the Communist Party, said in an editorial.
‘China has a large market, where the Beidou system can benefit both the military and civilians,’ the paper said.
‘With increases in profit, the Beidou system will be able to eventually develop into a global navigation satellite system which can compete with GPS.’
In a separate report, the paper said satellite navigation was seen as one of China’s ‘strategic emerging industries’.
Sun Jiadong, the system’s chief engineer, told the 21st Century Business Herald newspaper that as Beidou matures it will erode GPS’s current 95% market share in China, the Global Times said.
Morris Jones, an independent space analyst based in Sydney, Australia, said that making significant inroads into that dominance anywhere outside China is unlikely.
‘GPS is freely available, highly accessed and is well-known and trusted by the world at large,’ he told the AFP news agency. ‘It has brand recognition and has successfully fought off other challenges.’
Mr Jones described any commercial benefits China gains as ‘icing on the cake’ and that the main reason for developing Beidou is to protect its own national security given the possibility US-controlled GPS could be cut off.