Galileo, Europe's equivalent of the US GPS (global positioning system) satellite network, was given the go-ahead yesterday after European telco ministers finally agreed to inject more than £276m into the project.

The £2bn-plus project will, by 2008, consist of 30 satellites orbiting the earth, just as the US network of GPS satellites does at present (see our previous stories).

The money, together with the £400m already earmarked for the project, will secure funding through to 2005, a spokesman at the Council of Ministers said.

Ministers were divided on how to proceed with the project, which will be the European Union's biggest joint infrastructure project to date.

Britain was the least enthusiastic. Until now, the UK has tried to stay out of the affair, but one official said the government was satisfied with a compromise that would exclude private companies until after a tendering offer to find a private operator of the system had been put into place — expected by the end of next year.

"This ensures the integrity of the tendering process. It avoids a potential problem of conflicts of interest," he said.

Unlike GPS, Galileo will be a purely civilian satellite network, serving transport networks, such as airlines and shipping companies, as well as emergency services, such as search and rescue teams. Potential private investors in Galileo are likely to include aerospace firms, the spokesman at the Council said.

The USA has tried to discourage the EU from developing Galileo, arguing it was unnecessary and might complicate matters in space if the two systems are not compatible.

But Loyola de Palacio, commissioner for transport, said the EU would continue its "best cooperation" with US officials to ensure Galileo and GPS are compatible and complementary.

The recent cooling of relations between the USA and the EU has been cited as one reason why the Europeans are now rallying around Galileo.

European politicians at a summit of EU heads of state in Barcelona last week warned that Europe risked 'vassal' status to US technology in space.

Galileo "permits the EU to shake off dependence [on GPS]", French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said after the vote.