Funding Cuts Threaten GPS

April 19, 2000
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Have you ever listened to the complaints a "civilian" (read: not a surveyor or engineer) might make about some lagging highway reconstruction project or another? I'm referring to complaints along the lines of "When are they ever going to be finished working on this highway?" And, being a sophisticated surveyor or engineer, you reply, maybe only mentally, "It's never going to be 'finished,' as you use the word." There's no such thing as 'finished' for a highway. A highway is in many ways a living organism; it must evolve, grow, and be repaired and updated all of its life in order to fulfill its mission. That organism requires ordinary maintenance, the replacement of materials that have deteriorated, repair of accidental damage and the implementation of new techniques and materials. If you have participated in such a dialogue, then you should have some special insight into the near-catastrophe that has befallen GPS modernization funding.

Because a functioning Global Positioning System, too, is an organism-just like an evolving, deteriorating, increasingly used highway-our Global Positioning System needs attention.

  • Aging satellites need replacing.
  • The aviation community is eagerly awaiting implementation of the Wide- and Local-Area Augmentation Systems (WAAS/LAAS).
  • Recreational users everywhere await the undoing of Selective Availability, widely recognized as one of the silliest government programs ever (quite a superlative).
  • The U. S. Coast Guard is itching to implement its enhancements of the Coast Guard-operated Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS).
  • A user community with economic clout measured in the billions has committed untold resources to the expected health of the Global Positioning System.
  • And the list goes on.

But, in spite of requests from the White House, the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Transportation (DOT) and a plethora of other agencies and departments, Congress has ruthlessly slashed virtually all the budget requests for GPS.

The late Senator Everett Dirksen once quipped, " ¿a billion here, a billion there¿pretty soon you're talking real money." Perhaps keeping that whimsical scale in mind can help clarify our look at the budget problems the GPS community is facing. We might also gain some perspective by recalling some past federal budget decisions that were real doozies, such as funding construction for billion-dollar supersonic bombers that the DOD didn't even request.

In that context, the funding amounts for GPS modernization requested by the White House, DOD and DOT seem downright modest. But apparently, they weren't modest enough to survive the budget process in Washington.

The Budget Cuts - An Overview

One tricky aspect of the funding of improvements to the Global Positioning System is that the universality of GPS encompasses several agencies and departments who would share the benefit and costs. One of the more dramatic budget cuts was DOT's budget request of $17 million for FY2000. The DOT includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The DOT's request was totally zeroed out in the regular budget deliberations. The White House, NASA, DOT and even DOD all made a strong effort to subsequently restore the $17 million, but the final conference committee let the cuts stand. It now looks like the DOD may be able to reprogram some of its budget and come to the DOT's aid. The two agencies had intended all along to work together on GPS.

Other casualties in GPS funding include the FAA's Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), whose budget was cut 25 percent, probably delaying its deployment. The Local Area Augmentation (LAAS) was also cut. Even the U.S. Coast Guard suffered a major setback in its efforts to implement long-awaited upgrades to the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS). The Coast Guard received less than half its budget request. The NDGPS program holds great promise in mapping-grade positioning, possibly providing virtually cost-free differential corrections broadcast throughout the United States. Its deployment could well be the final nail in Selective Availability's coffin.

These federal budget issues are complicated, and I do not pretend to have a comprehensive grasp of all of them. But, for what it's worth, here's my (admittedly biased) take on the whole process: the GPS community, civil and defense-oriented alike, has linked arms, made cooperative budget requests and adopted a "can do" attitude without obsessive nit-picking about who pays for what. Congress, on the other hand, seems fixated on detailed tit-for-tat accounting. They seem to be searching for excuses (or "justification" in Congress-speak) to eliminate almost all the funding. Back to the satellite replacement issue: Happily, some of the older birds seem to be outliving their original life expectancy. Obviously, that's good. But should that extra longevity be counted upon to the extent that replacement funding is canceled? Are gains in efficiency being used against GPS administrators to deny funding?

Other Satellite Positioning Systems

The United States' GPS community might be wise to guard against complacency. GPS has been around long enough to begin to look like part of the furniture. But we're not the only game in town, satellite positioning-wise. Most GPS users are familiar with, or at least have heard of, the Russian GLONASS system. I confess to having displayed some disrespect for that system in the past. For instance, I've said in my seminars, "GLONASS¿brought to you by those same folks who implemented the MIR space station¿" and other so-called humor. That criticism may not be justified. At any rate, some GPS receiver manufacturers, notably Ashtech Precision Products (Santa Clara, Calif.) and Javad Positioning Systems (Sunnyvale, Calif.), have introduced units which can receive both the GLONASS signal and NAVSTAR GPS (U.S. GPS), effectively getting the benefit of maybe 12 to 18 satellites in one session! Those manufacturers are very complimentary about the capabilities of GLONASS when it's used in conjunction with NAVSTAR GPS. The jury is still out on the long-range value of GLONASS. It could turn out to be a contender, depending on how it gets funded. (Get it?)

But fewer of our colleagues may know about GALILEO. That's the proposed western European satellite system that enjoys widespread support and funding. Those folks (remember German engineering and technology? How about Swiss watches? Or Swedish cars?) are committed to launching and developing a world-class navigation system. The European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission (EC) have recently awarded important contracts totaling over 50 million Eurodollars (roughly equivalent to U.S. dollars). The total estimated cost of Galileo is 2.7 billion Eurodollars or more. Things could get rather embarrassing if the U.S. Congressional commitment to the Global Positioning System remains as tepid as recently evidenced. One encouraging note: the United States and the European Union have begun discussing a cooperative effort on GPS and GALILEO. But we could get left in the lurch if we don't pony up the funds for updates and modernization.

Some people in the industry are saying that countries outside the United States perceive our budget cuts as lack of support for the very system we created. Such a perception cannot be good for the United States; it can only encourage development of competing systems.

I have been heavily involved in GPS surveying since 1992: user in everyday practice, seminar presenter, consultant, and author of several columns and articles. Since my original introduction to the Global Positioning System, I have stoutly maintained that this system is a striking example of something the federal government actually did right, an achievement on par with manned lunar landings. Arguably, the advent of GPS has made a greater positive difference in more lives and endeavors than has manned space flight. It seems incredible that our leaders, at least those in Congress, refuse to recognize the system's value and the absolutely essential need to nourish that system with its lifeblood: funding.

On a more optimistic note, let's remember that the Global Positioning System has faced budget problems before. The constituency for GPS is strong and articulate, and the operators of the system seem to have a knack for getting things done in spite of adversity. I have faith that the pseudo-organism that is GPS will be OK. But faith always benefits from determined, positive action by committed users.

Although there are a few limited funding alternatives still alive, and although the current budget skirmish may be over, there's never a bad time to write your U.S. Representative and your U.S. Senator about a situation like this one. As always in legislative communication, it's best if you can reference a specific Senate or House Bill. But in this case I urge you to write even if you don't have the details about specific legislation. Just say, "Approve GPS funding. It's important!" You could even say "Darned important!" Let us make our voices heard.

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