Funding and spectrum conflicts threaten GPS civilian expansion

The departments of Defense and Transportation need to quickly resolve complex funding and spectrum issues to provide the Global Positioning System's second and third civilian signals, which Vice President Al Gore announced late last month, according to top Pentagon and DOT officials.

Developed by DOD at a cost of more than $10 billion and now jointly managed by DOD and DOT, the GPS system provides highly accurate positioning and navigational information to government users and the public, who can use handheld receivers to tap into the system's 24 satellites. The accuracy of the GPS signal ranges from 100 meters or better for civilian users to 25 meters or better for DOD. Civilian users range from the Federal Aviation Administration, which plans to develop a next-generation air traffic management system based on GPS, to forest rangers and government scientists who, among other things, use this data to track the movement of tectonic plates to predict earthquakes. The military uses GPS for precise weapons targeting as well as sea, air and land navigation.

The second and third civilian signals, which Gore promised would be available by 2005, would provide the improved reliability, accuracy and integrity that is required by the FAA to ensure safe aerial GPS navigation, and scientific users would benefit from the improved accuracy as well, according to DOD and civilian agency officials attending a meeting of DOT's Civil GPS Service Interface Committee last week. The CGSIC is responsible for communicating and dealing with civilian GPS users.

But delivering on the promises will require an agreement on spectrum issues and funding matters by August, the deadline for when the Air Force will need to incorporate changes for the new civilian signals into satellites that are under development by Boeing North American Inc. Boeing is the prime contractor building more than 20 GPS satellites that will be launched after the millennium.

One federal civilian agency official at the CGSIC meeting characterized the lack of detail in Gore's announcement as "typical of Washington.... Someone on high makes a pledge and then leaves it up to the worker bees to handle the details."

A key unresolved issue is funding. Cost estimates for adding the new signals range from $60 million to as high as $700 million, and civilian agencies are required by agreement to pay for new civilian frequencies. "Funding is the limitation" to increasing the capabilities of the GPS satellites or to adding more satellites to the 24-satellite constellation, said Mike Shaw, the assistant for GPS in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Space at the Pentagon. DOD "will look to DOT to orchestrate the funding" from civilian agencies, he added.

Joe Canny, chairman of the CGSIC, said DOT does not want to go "hat in hand'' to civilian agencies for funding, nor does DOT want a GPS budget that would require it to submit a request to the 13 congressional appropriations committees. DOT has decided to develop a coordinated approach to funding, with the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreeing to chair a CGSIC funding subcommittee.

Cmdr. Dave Minkle, the NOAA representative on the GPS Interagency Advisory Committee (GIAC), agreed that civilian agencies now must help financially support the system. "It's unfair to assume that DOD will finance applications that will not do anything for DOD," Minkle said.

But, he said, civilian agencies "have not yet defined how we are going to pay." The GIAC has formed a GPS Funding Mechanism Committee and put funding on a fast-track schedule "because we must come up with funding answers by August," he said.

The Pentagon and civilian agencies also need to resolve what DOT's Canny termed "substantial disagreements" about which frequencies will be used for the new civilian signals. The frequencies the civilian agencies are considering are ones that DOD officials said would limit the capability of military-specific applications or would interfere with tactical data links that military ships and aircraft use. The Pentagon's Shaw said national security issues will be the key determinant of the new GPS frequency plan.

Another obstacle facing federal telecommunications officials is the battle over GPS frequencies, which will take place next year at the International Telecommunications Union's World Radiocommunications Conference in Geneva, where the world radio representatives will set a policy to divide the shrinking global spectrum pie. At the 1997 conference, the United States had to defend its navigational frequencies against commercial companies planning to use the same frequencies for communications between satellites and handheld telephones.

"Not many countries supported us in 1997, and I would be surprised if...many countries [were] converted by 1999" to support the United States, said Dave Anderson, a spectrum expert at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. "If the [commercial] folks get their foot in the [frequency] door, it will go downhill from there."

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