By the end of the year, most of the world’s major mobile-phone chipset makers will have chips in the market that support both GPS and the Russian counterpart known as the Global Navigation Satellite System, or GLONASS. Chipset makers say that access to more positioning satellites will provide better location data for those in urban canyons, but they are shying away from saying just how much better location data will get.

“It really depends on the environment and time of day. I don’t want to give a blanket percentage since there are so many variables associated with location,” said Leslie Presutti, senior director of product management with Qualcomm. “But the user will definitely see an improvement with the additional satellites.”
Qualcomm announced its product support for the GLONASS system in May. The first GLONASS-capable phone is the MTS 945 from Chinese vendor ZTE, and it is being used by Russian operator MTS. The phone is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon MSM7x30 chipset. But U.S. handsets will be able to take advantage of the GLONASS system as well.

The GLONASS system right now has 21 functioning satellites in orbit, covering all of Russia and about 80% of the Earth. The completed constellation will have 24 satellites to provide global coverage. The constellation was supposed to be completed last year, but a spacecraft carrying the last three satellites in December didn’t make it to its destination. GLONASS-M is set to launch in August, and the three additional satellites are expected to strengthen the orbital group by December.

The GLONASS satellites are lower-Earth-orbit satellites and have been constructed in a different configuration than GPS, which allows fuller coverage and more precise measurements in places where GPS is not as effective — such as dense urban areas surrounding by tall buildings. Once GLONASS is combined with the 31 GPS satellites, wireless phones will be able to query 55 satellites for location data. Chipset vendors also say that GLONASS will help to reduce significantly the amount of time it takes to initially determine a device’s location.

“That basically means that in areas where a GPS-enabled device might only be able to see four GPS satellites, a GPS/GLONASS device can see six to eight,” Presutti said.

Qualcomm isn’t the only chipset provider with a GLONASS-enabled chip. In February, Broadcom announced two new system-on-a-chip (SoC) solutions that support GLONASS. Also that month, ST-Ericsson launched a receiver called the CG1950 that is able to see both GPS and GLONASS satellites. The receiver should be in the marketplace by the third quarter.

MTS’s GPS/GLONASS smartphone in Russia has been criticized for its higher price point. Presutti said that because of the way Qualcomm engineered the chip, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) don’t incur any additional cost since the company maximizes parts already in the phone. Rather, the additional cost for OEMs comes from placing a different type of antenna on the devices. Thus, it’s unclear what type of mass-market adoption these types of phones might garner.

It’s also unclear what the ramifications might be for E-911 calls and first responders relying on GPS services for navigation. One thing that is clear, however, is that manufacturers don’t want to delve into that aspect just yet.

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