Courtesy Reuters

Phantom Menace

By Charles R. Trimble

PHANTOM MENACE

To the Editor:

In "Space Diplomacy" (July/August 2003), David Braunschvig, Richard L. Garwin, and Jeremy C. Marwell take two missteps that lead them down a path of wrong conclusions. They overstate the problems with military stewardship of the United States' Global Positioning System (GPS), and they disregard its advantages. The result is a recommendation to split GPS into military and civilian components, which, if implemented, would make the system not only less effective from a commercial standpoint, but also less secure.

The current tempest over the EU's development of an independent system, Galileo, centers on a national security and political issue -- a Galileo signal overlay to the U.S. military's M-code. And it is true that technically speaking, overlays of U.S. military signals should be avoided, since this would lead to an expensive satellite power race. Still, Galileo is encouraged to share the Global Navigation Satellite System with GPS. In fact, Galileo and GPS share a common threat from a rising noise floor, or level of interference with their signals, caused by having to share the spectrum with communications, unlicensed unintended emitters, and ultra-wideband (UWB) devices. Galileo and GPS need not conflict with one another. With technically and politically independent systems, both parties are free to optimize their own system on a noninterfering basis. Moreover, the world would be a better place with two independent systems -- the combined satellite-based information infrastructure would be more robust. And the cost of adding a Galileo chip to a GPS device or vice versa would be only about $5.

GPS, Galileo, and all satellite systems face a common enemy: spectrum pollution. In the case of the dual-use GPS, U.S. military stewardship serves the country's interests well, simplifies congressional funding, and is effective for spectrum defense (protecting the bandwidth from outside interference). Yet spectrum-band ownership is a contentious issue and has been the source of much strife both at home and abroad, Galileo aside. The issue of major incursions above the GPS noise floor surfaced internationally at the World Radiocommunications Conference in 1997 (WRC-1997) and domestically at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The European attack on the GPS spectrum at WRC-1997, however, was payback for a U.S. company's efforts to secure greater advantages at WRC-1995. It took the commercial GPS industry and users, such as the airlines, together with the Department of Transportation, nasa, and the State Department, to finally win out at WRC-2000, convincing 120 countries that their dependence on GPS was at risk. Domestically, the unlicensed-UWB fight before the FCC required the intervention of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which invoked national security to get a fair rule that provided for UWB communications without damaging GPS. This important victory for GPS would not have been possible if it had not enjoyed the protection afforded by military stewardship.

Furthermore, splitting off the commercial component of GPS is better in theory than in practice. Over the years, many people have put forth creative proposals for structurally commercializing GPS, failing to recognize that the marketplace has already done so. Ground-based infrastructure now provides GPS integrity monitoring, accuracy at the centimeter level, and indoor reception for mobile emergency tracking. Far from hampering the commercial development of GPS, U.S. military stewardship provides the kind of hands-off supervision and level playing field that would be impossible under civilian oversight. Instead of heightening concerns about continuing U.S. military stewardship of GPS, a European system should mitigate them. There is no reason to complicate matters with industrial policy. And from the perspective of spectrum defense, losing the protection afforded by being part of a national security issue would be disastrous. The commercial GPS industry would actually view any change from military stewardship as a tragic mistake.

GPS does not have to remain a hostage to imaginary problems. There are real issues at stake and genuine threats to GPS in the U.S-European negotiations, but the competition between GPS and Galileo is not one of them.

Charles R. Trimble

Chairman, U.S. GPS Industry Council