Hill freezes GPS funds

Congressional concern about a Federal Aviation Administration program has the potential to jeopardize civilian and Defense Department initiatives based on the satellite-based Global Positioning System.

In fiscal 2000 Transportation Department appropriations bills, the House and the Senate have killed all fiscal 2000 funding for the addition of new signals to GPS satellites that would improve the accuracy of GPS positioning information from about 100 meters (about 318 feet) to within 7 meters (about 23 feet), as well as improve reliability by providing redundancy in the system.

Both bills attribute the cuts to continued delays in the FAA's Wide-Area Augmentation System, one of the primary intended beneficiaries of the new signals. WAAS, which the FAA undertook in 1996, is designed to make GPS the primary system for aircraft navigation, eliminating the need to operate and maintain costly and aging ground-based systems. But the program has yet to proceed far beyond the pilot phase.

The House, in its report on the 2000 Department of Transportation Appropriations Bill, froze WAAS spending at 1999 levels because of a 14-month slip in the Phase One schedule of the project, and said it "recommends deferring FAA funding for development of additional frequencies for civil use of...GPS due to uncertainties over phases beyond Phase One."

The addition of two "civil signals" was announced in March 1998 by Vice President Al Gore. GPS satellites provide a total of three signals, but only one of those is available to non-DOD users. The additional signals would make it possible to build GPS receivers that could compensate for the natural distorting effect of the earth's atmosphere on satellite signals as well as provide better error-checking capabilities in the system.

The improvements would have a major impact on a wide variety of programs that use GPS as a navigation aid for aircraft, trains, automobiles and ships or for conducting surveys, creating maps and other applications.

However, if that were to happen, the planned improvements may not happen. And if the improvements are not made, DOD may find itself in a difficult battle to protect its share of the radio spectrum.

According to a high-ranking DOD official speaking on background, DOD deferred design and development decisions for the next generation of GPS satellites last December to accommodate the FAA and civilian users. But, he said, DOD cannot afford to wait much longer to lock in the design of the new system to have satellites ready for launch in 2005 and beyond.

"This is one of the systems that won the Balkan air war," the DOD official said, referring to the GPS-guided precision munitions used in the recently concluded campaign against Serb forces in Yugoslavia. But, he said, "The GPS design is old, and we need new satellites that will give us higher-strength signals and protect us against jamming."

If the FAA comes back with new civilian signal requirements after DOD locks in its design, the FAA will have to pay a penalty that will run into the millions of dollars. "Right now [DOT and the FAA] are getting a bargain. Our cost [for the new signal package] is about $250 million, while the cost to the FAA is about $130 million." That is not a significant amount of money, the DOD official said, considering that DOD has expended a total of $14 billion to date on GPS.

The delay in developing the new signals for civilian applications also could hinder DOD's ability to protect its share of the radio spectrum, observers said.

A DOT official who declined to be identified expressed concern that by denying funding for new civil frequencies, Congress may end up sending the "wrong message" to the International Telecommunications Union, which decides spectrum allocations worldwide.

The United States came close to losing a valuable slice of the GPS spectrum at the ITU-sponsored World Administrative Radio Conference in 1998, and the DOT official said denial of funding for new civil signals would make it harder for the United States to protect the spectrum at the next WARC, scheduled for the end of next year.

The United States managed to protect its GPS frequencies at the last WARC by emphasizing its dual military and civil uses. But the funding freeze would send a signal to ITU member countries that the next generation of GPS satellites would be focused on military use, "and its hard to bid a coalition [of other nations] to defend purely military uses of GPS," the DOT official said.

The GPS industry and analysts viewed the funding decision with great concern. Richard Langley, a GPS expert and geodesist at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, said a congressional decision to delay funding for the new GPS signals "would be a blow to all GPS users. The advent of a third GPS frequency would benefit all GPS users, in light of the fact that it would significantly enhance...a system whose design is now 30 years old."

Besides providing greater precision, Langley said the new civil signals "would afford a high degree of redundancy, clearly advantageous in situations where one or two frequencies might suffer interference in a particular area."

A DOT spokesperson said "we're disappointed that Congress did not provide the funding for the second civil signal and hope to convince [it] of its importance."

The controversy even could have an impact on the GPS market, sources say.

The EU's plans for Galileo "makes it even more urgent to get on with the funding of GPS," Moran said, because the EU has targeted the civil positioning market "and the jobs and the revenue that go along with it." Moran said delays in civil signal funding would benefit only the EU and its GPS-like system and said any delays would allow the EU to beat the United States in introducing new GPS civil services.

Michael Swiek, executive director of the U.S. GPS Industry Council, agreed with Moran, saying the "economic imperatives" of the GPS market dictate that if the United States cannot provide the higher accuracy promised by its new civil signals, than users and receiver manufacturers will migrate to a competing system.

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