I attended the China Satellite Navigation Conference in Nanjing in May, the fifth year of CSNC and my third time attending. Tremendous progress was evident this year in terms of BeiDou (BDS) deployment and China’s general openness and willingness to collaborate over those years. I have also seen a slowly growing international presence at the show and expect that to continue to increase as well. You may recall my column last year about Little Tigers. Well, they aren’t so little any more. As for the tycoons, you will have to read to the end.
The conference opened with the usual provider updates. Chenqi Ran, who runs the China Satellite Navigation Office, the lead government agency for BDS, started off. It’s always good to hear his update delivered in China, where the is a little more freedom to provide information beyond the standard pitch. China continues on pace to its plan for the third step of BDS with five geosynchronous-orbit, three inclined geosynchronous-orbit, and 27 mid-Earth orbit satellites for a worldwide system by 2020. They are meeting their stated goal of 10-meter accuracy regionally today, and as good as 5-meter near the Equator. Ran also provided interesting numbers for the fast-growing Chinese domestic market:
- More than 2 million BDS chips sold in China in Q1
- More than 300,000 vehicles equipped with BDS
- 20 domestic brands offering car navigation systems
- First consumer tablet (Samsung Galaxy Note 3) with BDS.
- First consumer smartphone (Huawei B199) with BDS
The updates from other providers (GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo) were relatively standard and did not contain much new information. I had hoped that maybe the Russian presentation would provide more information about the April outages, but nothing was forthcoming and I was not overly surprised.
The conference itself is very well organized and runs nine parallel technical tracks over two full days, with additional special-interest sessions. All of the presentations are in Chinese, however the conference provides headsets for simultaneous translation, and many presenters have dual slide sets in Chinese and English, so it is easy to attend anything that seems interesting.
I came as an invited speaker on the Institute of Navigation (ION) panel organized by Professor Jade Morton from Miami University, Ohio, and Professor Lu of the National Timing Service Center near Xian. The ION panel was well attended and included a short panel discussion at the end.
One of the most interesting outcomes was that both Broadcom and Trimble showed approximately 25 percent accuracy improvement by adding Beidou to their existing GPS/GLONASS solutions. It was interesting not just because they reached the same number, but because Broadcomm was talking in meters about urban-canyon performance and Trimble was talking in centimeters about precise positioning.
It became clear that everyone sees BDS as an important part of their roadmap at L1, regardless of how many frequencies they currently support. I must also note that both Professor Morton and Professor Lu were outstanding hosts and showed us some of the wonderful local sites.
The biggest change from last year was in the exhibit hall. I would estimate the overall floor space grew by 50 percent, with 106 companies in specially designed booths (up from 56 last year) and another 44 in standard booths.
The content change was even more dramatic. Last year there were a lot of small booths with pretty basic displays, mostly of prototypes and slideshows. This year, there were many more extremely large booths that were very professionally created. They had evolved into displaying very polished-looking finished products with nicely edited videos. It was clear that this was all targeted at domestic buyers, as it was difficult to find anyone on the show floor who spoke English (except in the Spirent booth). These are no longer little tigers. These are now real companies, out hunting for new business.
Policy and Intellectual Property
My other favorite topic to listen to at this conference is on policy and intellectual property (IP). That is where I spent most of my time and was not disappointed. There was in fact an entire session dedicated to intellectual property, and several presentations on the global state of affairs of patents in GNSS.
Interestingly, most of the speakers were either lawyers or from government, but there were some corporate ones as well. Several speakers highlighted the recent disagreement and settlement of the patent dispute between the United States and the United Kingdom over complex modulation patents. There was a large element of underlying concern that although the U.S. had been able to settle the dispute, it might be very hard for China if either the U.S. or the UK came after them. They had several charts showing how far behind they were in GNSS patents, in an effort to encourage local companies to create more IP and patent it. They also showed they have made significant progress in recent years in domestic Chinese patents, though they still have a long way to go in international patents.
They were also very concerned about the largest holders of GNSS patents in China — Qualcomm and Broadcom — as a threat to domestic industry. They cited the GlobalLocate/Broadcom versus SiRF/CSR lawsuit as a cautionary tale. Several presenters showed the dominance of Broadcomm and Qualcomm in terms of domestic Chinese patent holdings and referred to them as the “Tycoons.” I envisioned Rich Uncle Moneybags, the guy from the Monopoly game wearing the top hat, walking around with patents instead of dollar bills hanging out of his hat.
The little tigers have definitely grown up. They are much bigger, have real teeth, and are definitely trying to stake out territory in the fast-growing domestic market. But the Tycoons still have the upper hand in the mass-market battle for consumer devices. For the moment, anyway.
The Tycoons are going to have to start spending some of their bounty in China if they want to maintain that market share against rapidly evolving domestic competition. I won’t be surprised if next year we see the Tycoons exhibiting at CSNC, and soon after that, the tigers looking to expand their hunting ground into nearby markets in Korea, India, and Japan.
Greg Turetzky is a principal engineer at Intel responsible for strategic business development in Intel’s Wireless Communication Group focusing on location. He has more than 25 years of experience in the GNSS industry at JHU-APL, Stanford Telecom, Trimble, SiRF, and CSR. He is a member of GPS World’s Editorial Advisory Board.
The statements, views, and opinions presented in this article are those of the author and are not endorsed by, nor do they necessarily reflect, the opinions of the author’s present and/or former employers or any other organization the author may be associated with.