- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

At the dawn of the third millennium man is on the threshold of what promises to be a great era in space.

Despite the recent loss of Mars probes, we can look with satisfaction on the things already achieved.

Communication satellites have changed the world by bringing mobile telephone, television, and data transmission to the most remote corners of the globe. Another accomplishment that touches all our lives, whether we realize it or not, is the development of global navigation with high accuracy through a constellation of satellites known as the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Conceived as a military use of space to provide accurate navigation and targeting, GPS became so popular that the civilian world claimed this military system as its own. The system itself has become a free global utility that drives economic growth.

The 24 satellites in the GPS constellation transmit signals continuously, in all kinds of weather, free for all users. With a simple, hand-held receiver you can tell from GPS signals where you are anywhere on Earth, within a matter of feet.

It is extremely important to the military for units, vehicles, ships, aircraft, and even individual soldiers to know exactly where they are, especially at night or in unfamiliar terrain.

It also is invaluable to small boat owners, trucking and transportation companies, and police and emergency services that want to know where their units are at all times or where an accident has occurred. A GPS security system in your car enables the security company to track and find it if it is stolen. The "Future Air Navigation" system will allow aircraft to keep track of their exact location and fly the most direct route, while GPS Local Area Augmentation makes possible precise landings in zero visibility.

The Federal Reserve transfers some $9 billion a day. Banks and other institutions using high-speed data networks keep their transmissions synchronized with the time signal from GPS, the most accurate ever known. Surveyers and mapmakers are among the most enthusiastic users. Through differential navigation, they can define locations to within a fraction of an inch. GPS signals show the Capitol in Washington is 246 feet from where it was believed to be. Property lines can be drawn with unprecedented accuracy. Use is growing in public transportation, farming, commercial fishing, and hundreds of other economic activities.

GPS is a high-technology engine driving the economy. But the signals need to be more robust, with greater accuracy for such purposes as aircraft navigation and landing, and precise maritime navigation in restricted waterways. Total reliability also is needed for time signals for global communications and data transfers. U.S. military receivers now get the most accurate GPS signals, which make possible precise navigation and pinpoint accuracy for smart bombs.

The signals for civilian use are degraded in an effort to prevent hostile forces from using GPS accuracies for their weapons. While the degraded signal is fine for some purposes, it is not good enough for others.

The failure of the United States, which pioneered GPS, to provide the most accurate signals for civilian users, combined with user concern that the military might cut off civilian signals at any time, has led to a move in Europe to build a better and more reliable system for civilian use, and charge for it. In a report from Paris, Space News says the French space agency estimates a global market for satellite navigation that soon will be worth $16 billion a year.

The European Union is planning Galileo, a civilian constellation of 30 satellites that will provide navigation and time signals better than the current U.S. military system.

Last year, the House of Representatives deleted a modest amount from the budget of the Federal Aviation Administration to start work on two new GPS civilian signals. GPS activities now come under various federal agencies and congressional committees, but as a small office in the Pentagon, GPS lacks advocates for improving civilian signals.

It is time to stop treating GPS as just another military support system and recognize it as an economic engine that improves efficiency and creates wealth. It should be under the direction of a new Global Positioning and Timing office which, like the old Atomic Energy Commission, would consider the national interest in overseeing this national asset.

It is not too late to prevent the loss of U.S. leadership in this cutting-edge technology. The potential for both business and safety of life is so great GPS signals cannot remain the exclusive property of the military. The administration and Congress should consider how best to organize the oversight of GPS in the interest of both national security and economic growth. If nothing is done, American business will be buying GPS signals from Europe, while U.S. taxpayers pay for a comparable system for the Defense Department.

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