The growth of location-based services (LBS) makers perfect sense, given how much potential they provide to the end user. Having a phone or computer that can determine where you are and provide thoughtful information based on what’s nearby can be leveraged in ways that are only just now being fully explored. This could come crashing to the ground, however, given suspected problems with U.S. GPS coverage.
A recent report (PDF) by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) points out that the U.S.-run GPS system responsible for providing worldwide GPS services is so far behind schedule that services may begin dying as early as 2010. This decay of service could have far-reaching implications for both the military and civilian sectors.
We think very little about the GPS system and how it works because it is “just there.” The proliferation of cheap GPS devices has pushed this technology into the mainstream and as usually happens with such a push,we stop thinking about the technology behind it and simply expect it to work. We’ve seen this with radio, TV and cellular phones.
GPS service requires a “constellation” of satellites to be in orbit in order to provide the coverage needed to maintain viability of the GPS net. Satellites have a limited lifespan, which requires replacement satellites to be launched continually to maintain the status quo as older satellites die. This has not happened, according to the report.
It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption. If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected.
It’s frightening to think of the GPS satellite system failing to provide the service we have come to take for granted, and further digging into the GAO report makes it even more so:
Based on the most recent satellite reliability and launch schedule data approved in March 2009, the estimated long-term probability of maintaining a constellation of at least 24 operational satellites falls below 95 percent during fiscal year 2010 and remains below 95 percent until the end of fiscal year 2014, at times falling to about 80 percent.
This statement becomes very real when you look at their timeline for predicted lack of coverage:
The impact of a loss of GPS coverage would be widespread and the report details just the major services likely to be affected. Intercontinental commercial flights may have to delay, cancel or reroute their flights due to the lack of accurate GPS coverage. The enhanced 911 service that uses GPS to pinpoint callers on cell phones would become less accurate, meaning that emergency workers would not know exactly where you are when you need help the most.
Given the impact on crucial services that the report covers it’s a safe bet that making sure your iPhone knows where you are won’t be high on anyone’s list. LBS services would likely take the first hit with a GPS degradation and that TomTom in your car likely won’t work very well, either. The GAO is basically telling the U.S. government to get its act together in regards to this situation, and soon.
(Thanks to the Register for pointing to this report)