US Airforce Denies GPS Failure Reports


A US government report predicted that as old satellites begin to fail over the next few years, GPS coverage could decline

The US Air Force Space Command’s assurances that the GPS satellite system is sound, despite a recent GAO report on the system’s potential failure, highlights how popular GPS has become in civilian use.

On 19 May, the Air Force Space Command jumped on the Twitter bandwagon for a press conference designed to soothe the media outcry over the potential failure of the GPS system, which allows devices to determine location with pinpoint accuracy.

Much of the uproar came as a result of a 7 May US GAO (Government Accountability Office) report that predicted an “increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to.”

The GAO report further blamed the Air Force’s delay in deploying new GPS satellites on a combination of contracting issues, blown budgets and overshot deadlines. The 31 GPS satellites that the United States has in orbit require a block upgrade that will be completed three years late and $870 million (£549m) over budget, according to the report.

During the Twitter conference, however, Air Force Space Command took pains to emphasise that GPS satellites will not start raining from the sky at any moment.

“The issue is not whether GPS will stop working,” said one “Tweet,” which added, “There’s only a small risk we will not continue to exceed our performance standard.”

“The issue is under control,” said another Air Force tweet.

But the media attention given to the issue is indicative of the rising popularity of GPS-equipped devices.

“Location—especially GPS-enabled location—is becoming more and more important to a lot of constituencies,” Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research, said in an interview. “More than a third of the population is relying on [location] tools to get them from here to there; it’s not like five or six years ago when just a few people were using these devices to hike the Appalachian Trail.”

“Plus, the idea of location as an attribute—being able to ask your phone where’s the nearest ATM—is becoming more prevalent,” Golvin added, “so there are a lot more constituencies planning applications that will rely on GPS in the future.”

The military, however, has a strong interest in ensuring that the satellite network behind GPS continues to function—as does the enterprise.

“If GPS went away, it would really affect not only consumer, but also business life—routing, navigation and emerging categories such as location-based services,” Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner, said in an interview. “That brings up another important aspect—the military could decide the disable functionality for consumer or business users if they wanted to; that’s not a highly likely threat, but the possibility is always there.”

The remote possibility that GPS could become unavailable, Koslowski added, could prompt companies to explore the possibilities of getting their location data through “other satellite infrastructures.” At the moment, though, alternate systems also remain firmly under government control, such as the Galileo system currently being built by the European Union.

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