GPS system could begin to fail within a year

U.S. federal watchdog blames mismanagement for potential failures

The Global Positioning System faces the possibility of failures and blackouts, a federal watchdog agency has warned the U.S. Congress. Mismanagement by and underinvestment by the U.S. Air Force places the GPS at risk of failure in 2010 and beyond. The problem: delays in launching replacement satellites, among other things.

According to the Government Accountability Office report, "In recent years, the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals" as part of a US$2 billion modernization program.

"If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be 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."

Considered by the GAO to be "essential to national security" the GPS is also widely used by business and consumers and is a driver for next-generation location-based mobile applications used with smartphones and other devices.

"Such a gap in capability could have wide-ranging impacts on all GPS users," the GAO report states, "though there are measures the Air Force and others can take to plan for and minimize these impacts."

It is hard to imagine the U.S. government could allow this to happen. Actually, that's a lie, it's easy to imagine, but there is also time for corrective action to be taken. The first replacement satellite is expected to be launched this November, some three years after the original launch date. Speeding up future launches can solve the problem, but is likely to come at a high price.

The American GPS, though the pioneering consumer satnav system, is not alone. Russia, China, and India each have systems of their own, which are being expanded.

The European Union's Galileo system, intended as a rival for GPS, is expected to begin its rollout later this year.

The delay and potential failure of GPS gives these other nations the potential to rival the U.S. in space, something the U.S. government is unlikely to accept. The report is a black eye for the Air Force, which developed the GPS system during the 1990s and has maintained it since.

At last count, David Coursey owned more than a dozen GPS devices and expects his government to keep them working. He Tweets as dcoursey and can be reached using the email form at www.coursey.com/contact.

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David Coursey

PC World (US online)
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