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Is China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system a challenge to US GPS?

In this file photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, a model of Chinese BeiDou navigation satellite system is displayed during the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China 2018, in Zhuhai city, south China's Guangdong province. The Beidou will link more than 30 satellites providing real-time geospatial information worldwide _ China's answer to the GPS (Global Positioning System). (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter


With a launch this week, China has completed the build-out of a satellite system called BeiDou (Big Dipper in English), which will be used for navigation and synchronization.

If you’ve read the headlines, you might think this system is a “rival” or “challenge” to GPS, the US Global Positioning System. This framing doesn’t really capture what it means for China—or Russia (Glonass), or the European Union (Galileo), or Japan (Quasi-Zenith)—to operate its own sat nav system.

These services are vital to the modern economy. Beyond providing guidance to planes, cars, robots, and people, the signals are also used to provide precise timing for financial transactions and communication networks. And they are provided free of charge, using public protocols.

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