Institute calls for privatizing GPS

A conservative think tank last month released a report calling for the Air Force to sell its satellite communications system which provides troop locations and guides weapons to pinpoint accuracy to a private company.

The Reason Public Policy Institute a Los Angeles public policy research group that advocates privatizing many government functions recommended that the federal government should remove control of the Global Positioning System (GPS) from the Air Force and convert it into a commercial company funded by user fees because the system is more beneficial to civilian users than to the military.

The report "Commercializing the Global Positioning System " advocated separating GPS into a private entity. But Reason also called for the Federal Aviation Administration to stop development of a system that was designed to enhance GPS signals for precision landings of commercial aircraft.

The report may have attracted the interest of some Congress members who may introduce legislation next year to commercialize the GPS system said report author Al Blackburn FAA associate administrator for policy and international aviation from 1986-88.

From Hikers to Pilots

The Air Force developed the 24-satellite GPS system to locate U.S. forces to within 10 meters or less and to provide geographical inputs for precision-weapons systems. The Air Force GPS Joint Program Office declined to comment on the report because it concerned policy matters and referred all requests for comments to the Defense Department. DOD did not comment by the IFCW/I deadline.

GPS also provides a civilian signal of 100 meters or better. During the past decade the availability of the signal has fostered the growth of a multibillion-dollar GPS market giving everyone from hikers to pilots the ability to locate their positions. GPS also serves as the data engine for geographic information systems which provide highly accurate data for the development of smart maps.

Benefits for Civilian Users

The explosive growth of the civil GPS industry is a key factor in the Reason report's argument for conversion of the GPS system to commercial control. "GPS already provides far more benefits to civilian users than to the military " the report said. "Future versions could provide far greater benefits."

But the report said continued military control of GPS will "shortchange" civilian users because the Air Force "does not seek to maximize benefits. To the contrary it purposefully degrades the accuracy available to civilians."

This degradation which the Air Force calls selective availability reduces the accuracy of the civilian GPS signal. Civilian users can locate their positions within only 100 meters. The inaccuracy has led to the development of differential GPS (DGPS) systems such as a nationwide network operated by the Coast Guard and the FAA's Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) as well as commercial systems which correct the skewed signal. The Reason report said transfer of GPS to a commercial entity would bring an end to the Air Force's tinkering with the GPS signal.

"Based on likely future revenues compared with costs the existing GPS system could be sold to a commercial entity for at least its $7 billion cost development " Blackburn said.

Robert Poole who served as project director on the GPS study for Reason said commercialization also would "save the cost of replacing the current satellites as they reach the end of their useful lives - about a half billion dollars a year."

Commercialization could save the FAA money on development of WAAS designed not only for fine-tuning the GPS signals for precision landings but also for integrity monitoring of the GPS constellation Poole said. Instead commercial providers could meet the FAA's needs.

FAA officials could not be reached for comment.

Ron Haley president of Differential Corrections Inc. a Cupertino Calif.-based commercial DGPS supplier with a worldwide network that broadcasts WAAS' corrections on subcarriers of FM radio stations agreed with the report. "Commercial providers can do what WAAS was designed to do only we can do it cheaper and faster " said Haley who added that chronic delays continue to hobble deployment of WAAS.

Haley said if the FAA does field WAAS it could cripple his business especially in agriculture areas where farmers use GPS for precision planting.

An industry source familiar with WAAS said "the FAA cannot afford to put WAAS on hold because it is designed to replace an aging infrastructure" and added that WAAS being developed by Hughes Aircraft Corp. is slowly evolving into an international standard with Hughes under contract to develop a similar system in Japan. This source added that Canada and Mexico have signaled their intentions to participate in WAAS.

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