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Technology

The Scary Threat to GPS That Could Paralyze U.S. Businesses

We've become massively dependent on global positioning. An outage would cost us billions of dollars. And there's no backup — yet.

Artist's impression of a GPS-IIRM satellite in orbit. GPS.gov

A growing problem for GPS: The U.S. doesn't have a backup system. Most of our critical infrastructure, including power grids, banks, transportation systems and telecom networks, relies on the Global Positioning System. Beyond mapping for transportation and other location services, GPS is used for highly precise timing necessary for high-speed financial trading, wireless network synchronization and power grid synchronization. But the rising risk of a major outage goes largely unnoticed. "I think GPS vulnerability doesn't attract much attention because there have not been any major calamities yet, unlike with cybersecurity," says Marc Weiss, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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A disruption in GPS would paralyze scores of business and other services, and with GPS use on the increase, a plausible work-around is becoming critical. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office pegged the cost of a GPS outage in the billions of dollars, and that might be a vast understatement. Google and Boston Consulting Group concluded in a 2012 report that the value of geospatial services, only a portion of GPS's total value, added up to $1.6 trillion in just the U.S. Experts point out that the potential for civil unrest would rise, too, as a variety of systems, from ATMs to cellular networks, go down. Intentional wireless jamming, solar flares, satellite malfunctions and foreign threats are among the rising threats to GPS.

When I ask Dana A. Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, about quantifying the value of GPS services, his response is blunt: "What's the value of oxygen? GPS is oxygen. If it goes away, really, really bad things happen." Goward, a former Coast Guard captain, spent years working in the federal government on the need for GPS backup before he retired in 2013. Now the head of the RNTF, a nonprofit that promotes the need for resilient navigation systems, Goward points out that GPS has become a ubiquitous and invisible utility.

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A recent bill would put the Coast Guard in charge of restarting work on a land-based backup system, known as LORAN, which is short for long-range navigation system. The old system would get an overhaul that adds automation and stability. The cost to run the updated LORAN would be less than $50 million per year, a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of a major GPS disruption. Uncle Sam has kicked the can down the road for years when it comes to fortifying GPS. The need for a GPS backup system was identified at the end of the Clinton administration. After gaining some traction, the funding for a backup was scrapped by the Obama administration in 2009.

Researchers are also working on other alternative backup systems. In one project, federal researchers are eyeing wired telecom networks as a possible substitute in case GPS goes down. Recent tests involve CenturyLink's fiber-optic lines using gear from Microsemi. The test spanned 93 miles and proved accurate enough to synchronize cell phones, but it wasn't precise enough for other uses. More tests are planned into next year, including testing a link from Boulder, Colo., to Chicago, says Weiss.

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GPS and other timing systems will be even more vital to modern life in the years ahead. Timing signals need to be even more precise for the rise of connected sensors, devices and machines, known as the Internet of Things. A government report from last year concludes that a lack of highly precise timing systems could stall new technologies, such as split-second collision avoidance systems in cars or communication links in a smart electric grid.

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The U.S. is more at risk than countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, which all have some form of terrestrial backup system. GPS disruptions happen all the time because the signal is weak and extremely vulnerable to interference. "Terrorists can mount an attack with just a GPS jammer," says Goward. The jammers can cost less than $50 each and are extremely hard to track and stop. Note that companies such as U.K.-based Spirent offer equipment that assists in detection of GPS jamming to help fend off such interference.

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Sales of GPS equipment will jump once a backup system is in the works. Maker of GPS receivers, which have dealt with years of flat sales, stand to benefit, since a whole generation of equipment will need to be replaced to incorporate the backup system. Eventually, even consumer devices will get updated. Sales of GPS equipment will jump once a backup system is in the works. Maker of GPS receivers, which have dealt with years of flat sales, stand to benefit, since a whole generation of equipment will need to be replaced to incorporate the backup system. Eventually, even consumer devices will get updated. Vendors of GPS gear and related services include UrsaNav, Chronos Technology, Garmin and Taviga.