GPS, Back In the Day


Today a GPS chip can fit in a cell phone and can cost as little as a dollar. Thirty years ago a GPS device cost tens of thousands of dollars, was bigger than a bread box (see picture) and was used only by the military. Bob Rennard, chief technology officer at mobile navigation company TeleNav, remembers those days. He was a principal engineer of GPS technology in the ’70s and earlier this week he regaled a fascinating story to me:

Rennard says when he was working on designing the original GPS system his team had three goals:

1) Be able to drop 5 bombs in the same hole during combat.

2) Make a GPS receiver that could be worn on a soldier’s back.

3) Make that device for under $20,000.

Wow. Well, 30 years later those goals look as dated as room-sized computers. At Santa Clara-based TeleNav, Rennard and TeleNav executives like CEO HP Jin are making GPS navigation services available on the average cell phone for about $10 per month. The company has been winning over carriers and handset makers and announced that it has added carrier Alltel Wireless this week.

We reviewed TeleNav’s service on a Sprint Katana Sanyo phone a few months ago, and found the service flawless while driving around the Bay Area. I even took it to remote Placerville in the Sierra foothills and it was accurate on backwoods rural roads. The only exception was driving in downtown San Francisco, where tall buildings confused the signal.

I also wanted a way to connect the audio driving directions to my speakers, so, say, I can play loud music and then be interrupted when there is an important direction. Without a service like that sometimes the audio directions were hard to hear. The Telenav execs say they are working on these types of features.

There are a few other companies selling into this market as well, like Networks in Motion, which is behind Verizon’s VZ Navigator, and Wave Market.

Sadly, such new navigation techniques are in greater focus after the recent tragic loss of James Kim. As GPS technology improves, maybe we will all be a little safer in the future.


Jesse Kopelman

john genter, many phones do have this capability if you put them in “engineering mode.” One big problem is that most new phones use A-GPS which is single channel GPS augmented by triangulation information from the network. Single channel GPS makes for much cheaper GPS receivers, but it is not very accurate without the triangulation information from the network. That aside, it is not like every phone has GPS. It is only standard in CDMA and iDEN phones, right now. Given that the US market is pretty evenly split between CDMA/iDEN and GSM/TDMA/AMPS, any given person only has a 50% chance of having a GPS chip in their phone.

john genter

Why don’t cell phone that are gps enabled have the ability to display current latitude and longitude? James Kim could have gotten position info from his phone even without cell service – if cell phones shared this info with their users – but they don’t (except for phones with full navigation features). The Kims could have checked their position against their maps and found that they were not 4 miles from the nearest town. This could have been critical in helping Mr. Kim decide where to go for help.

So, why don’t cell phones have the ability to display position? Sure, most people would not know how to use the info, but for the few cents cost this feature would add, why not splurge? And besides, the Kims would likely have been just the folks who would have benefitted.

I have read literally hundreds of comments regarding the Kims and I am surprised that this has not come up.

Justin Kistner

I have mixed feelings about GPS enabled cell phones. On the one hand, I think they are going to open a whole new world of connectivity. However, I’m concerned about the privacy implications. I know that they are inevitable and after a few problems, we’ll work it out. In the mean time, I’m going to enjoy Buddy Beacons.


I remember that I brought the second GPS unit that was seen at my local airfield, a Garmin GPS 55 AVD, which looked like:

(Are URLs not allowed to avoid spam? – 2nd repost)

and it was a marvelous wonder. It also got me many cockpit rides in commercial flights – when I told the pilots I had the thing, they wanted to check how good it fared against their VOR and inertial systems (GPS was not certified for airline use for years after it was available to the general public). I also remember heated debates among pilots for and against the new technology. Those who tried it became in love, those who yet hadn’t, said they would not trust the system over their traditional instruments, or a pair of eyeballs, a map, and a stopwatch.

I still keep the unit, brings back many memories.

Bokeem Woodbine

Um, you don’t “regale” a story. You regale someone with a story. Regale means entertain. You guys need a copy editor. You need one much less that Om, but really. I bet you could offshore the copy editing to India real cheap.

Roy O' Connor

I am developing a GPS device and am looking for low cost GPS chips. Katie mentions GPS chips for less than a dollar. Does anyone know which chips are these and where can i get them.


Phones which have unlimited data plans can use GPS integrated with google maps… The helio is an example of the same… Anyway the main use case for GPS is car and with a bunch of dedicated GPS units available for 200 bucks 10 bucks a month sounds excessive.


If they can give that service for $10 per month, why not give it off for free ? Support it via local ads. Deliver ads about the discount in the next right turn or about discounts when the person is in a mall ? 10 ads per month and they are in black. Any thing more is bonus. More here

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