What value does precise timing hold for GPS?

July 24, 2019  - By
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Photo: Lockheed Martin

Image: Lockheed Martin

This just in: a Final Report on the Economic Benefits of GPS. Sponsored by National Institute of Standards and Technology, the study began a couple of years ago, conducted by RTI International, one of the nation’s oldest and largest research firms.

The report runs 306 pages and examines the benefits derived from GPS by 10 U.S. industries: agriculture, electricity, finance, location-based services, mining, maritime, oil and gas, surveying, telecommunications and telematics.

Among other issues, the research explored the potential effect of a 30-day GPS outage, assuming that other GNSS would be disrupted as well, and found the outage would have a $1 billion per-day impact. The 30-day outage scenario was specifically added at the request of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing.

While a disruption lasting 30 days seems unlikely, as the report says, “understanding the relative magnitude of potential impacts is important for making informed decisions about investments in back-up systems and contingency plans.”

Relating a sense of the full report is beyond the scope of this small space, but I encourage all readers to download it (link at ) and examine it either in its entirety, or in its applicability to your particular industrial sector. Here

I’ll focus briefly on GPS’s precise timing capability, which supports telecommunications.

Precise timing enables service providers to more efficiently use available spectrum and deliver high-speed wireless services. Given American society’s intensive use of these two lifelines, it is not surprising that benefits related to telecommunications are substantial: $685 billion, more than twice that of the second-ranked industry in terms of economic benefits, and more than half of the total benefits.

GPS reduces/eliminates dropped calls and increases bandwidth, enabling more advanced networks such as 4G LTE, which we now have, and 5G, which is coming at breakneck speed.

Wireless network infrastructure has evolved to rely heavily on GPS. In fact, GPS has shaped the telecommunications industry: its technology has evolved around GPS. See last month’s cover story for more details.

Interestingly, to calculate the economic benefits of GPS in the telecom sector, the researchers used two indices as a baseboard: radio spectrum auction data showing telecom service providers’ willingness to pay (WTP) for spectrum to provide 4G LTE, and consumers’ WTP for the broadband speeds enabled by 4G LTE. Both these numbers are going up, up, up.

While the number of wireless subscribers in the United States increased at a respectable rate from 2009 to 2017 — about 35% — the average bandwidth used by those subscribers expanded at an astonishing 2,200%!

Experts interviewed on the prospect of an extended GPS outage agreed that, eventually, a user would have to remain stationary to maintain a wireless connection, albeit a degraded one. After some time of steady degradation of quality of service, wireless service would cease to function altogether.

It’s hard to imagine which would be worse: a world without mobile telecoms, or one without GPS. However, we don’t have to strain, because in this case we would lose both.

To avoid the unimaginable…plan, plan, plan, and backup, backup, backup.

This article is tagged with and posted in From the Magazine, Opinions

About the Author:


Alan Cameron is editor-at-large of GPS World magazine, where he has worked since 2000.

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