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Critical Infrastructure: The United States and GPS

Glen Gibbons
The United States is still running the GPS program as though we had all the time in the world.

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So, President Obama wants to spend some money on infrastructure, eh? Well, here’s an idea: send some of it GPS’s way.

Infrastructure isn’t just concrete and rebar. We can also build highways to the stars and — pardon the clichés — bridges to the future rather than bridges to nowhere.

And talk about bang for the buck. The billion dollars or so that the United States spends on GPS each year produces many tens of billions of dollars in products and services.

Of course, a big chunk of that GPS market is outside of this country. But after our recent lamentable contribution to global financial troubles, perhaps its time to remind the world about the unprecedented U.S. generosity in creating an entirely new public utility and making it available everywhere.

Not only that, but U.S. policy forced other GNSS providers to be generous, too. As the would-be Galileo public-private partnership discovered, you can’t compete with free.

Anyway, back to Obama and infrastructure.

The Global Positioning System has many unusual, novel, perhaps even unique features. But the one that relates to the current topic is that GPS is both a critical infrastructure in itself — notably its ground control and space segments and the pervasive, strategic installation of high-performance receivers  — and a contributor to other critical infrastructures, such as communications networks or transportation.

That should earn GPS double the attention, if not twice the budget.

But there’s more. GPS not only allows us to do things that we couldn’t do before; it allows us to do them more efficiently — greater productivity at less cost, whether surveying forest boundaries or guiding a thousand airplanes at once.

And though those efficiencies may reduce the job opportunities at individual enterprises, they stimulate a far greater amount of job creation overall — design and engineering, manufacturing, professional fieldwork — most of it high-skilled and higher-paying than the positions that were lost.

The United States really hasn’t had an industrial policy since just before and during World War II, when the Roosevelt administration converted much of the nation’s jobless into public employees (Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps), its manufacturing sector into an armament assembly line, and gasoline and foodstuffs into ration coupons.

After that, we saw occasional, isolated initiatives — the interstate highway system, the lunar missions of the 1960s, SEMATECH — large-scale infrastructure and technology programs that could have served as potential components of an industrial policy, if one had existed.

GPS can help thread the new infrastructure efforts together, and expand the role that it already plays.  Many commercial GPS manufacturers are looking forward to the opportunities that building or restoring highways, bridges, and (imagine!) maybe even railroads will bring.

But the United States is still running the GPS program as though we had all the time in the world. Well, no offense to those atomic clocks on board the GPS satellites (another first of its kind), but the world is quickly catching up with us in matters of GNSS. And, if we take a close look at the world’s four GNSS program schedules, over the next few years just about every other GNSS system is going to pass GPS by in terms of signal availability, modernity, and diversity.

The United States risks seeing its GPS brand decline amid the growing choices in the GNSS marketplace.

It’s time that the GPS leadership, civil and military, revisited its prevailing philosophy and began launching for scheduled capability, rather than as needed to sustain an aging constellation.

And, while they’re at it, they should take another look at the size of the constellation. Every other GNSS system is committed to a true 30 satellite/30 slot configuration. If the advent of the biggest infrastructure investment in American history isn’t the right time to do the same with GPS, when is?

As American poet Edwin Markham asked on behalf of the man with the hoe gazing at the ground, “Give back the upward looking and the light/ Rebuild in it the music and the dream”

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