May 20, 2009

Experts Warn Of Deteriorating GPS Network

Experts and government officials are growing increasingly concerned that the quality of the Global Positioning System (GPS) could begin deteriorating as soon as next year. 

Such a breakdown could result in potential blackouts and failures, providing inaccurate directions to millions of people worldwide who rely upon satellite navigation tools.

The warning is based on the network of GPS satellites that continuously orbit the Earth and send signals back to the ground that help pinpoint a position on the planet's surface.

The U.S. Air Force has overseen the satellites since the early 1990s.

However a study by the U.S. government accountability office (GAO), found that mismanagement and a lack of investment could cause the critical GPS satellites to begin failing as early as next year.

"It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption," wrote the authors of the report, which was presented to Congress.

"If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected," it said.

The report noted that Air Force officials have failed to execute the necessary steps to maintain smooth operation of the system.

Despite spending nearly $2 billion to bring the 20-year-old system up to date, overspending and delays are putting the entire system in jeopardy, the GAO said.

"In recent years, the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals," said the report.

"It encountered significant technical problems "¦ [and] struggled with a different contractor."

The first replacement GPS satellite was set to launch in early 2007, but has been postponed several times and is now scheduled to launch in November -- nearly three years late.

The breakdown of the GPS network could substantially effect ordinary satnav users, causing millions to receive bad directions or failed services.  The military, which relies upon GPS for reconnaissance, mapping and tracking, would be similarly impacted. And some suggest a GPS breakdown would also slow the proliferation of so-called location-based applications on mobile phones.

Tom Coates, who leads Yahoo's Fire Eagle system, was skeptical that the United States would let the system fall into complete disrepair due to its strategic importance to so many people and businesses.

"I'd be surprised if anyone in the US government was actually OK with letting it fail "“ it's too useful," Coates said in an interview with the Guardian.

"It sounds like something that could be very serious in a whole range of areas if it were to actually happen. It probably wouldn't damage many locative services applications now, but potentially it would retard their development and mainstreaming if it were to come to pass," he said.

The breakdown of GPS could ultimately have benefits for other nations.  For instance, it might open the door to Galileo, the European-funded initiative to rival the United States' satellite navigation system.  Galileo is currently set to roll out later next year.

China, Russia and India have also developed their own satellite navigation technologies.

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