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Speaking of Global Positioning Systems…

I just read a weird article in the International Herald Tribune about global positioning systems. Russia, among others, intends to throw up its own GPS satellite network to compete with the US system.

MOSCOW: The days of their Cold War may have passed, but Russia and the United States are in the midst of another battle – this one a technological fight over the future of America’s Global Positioning System, or GPS.

Fight over the future? Say what? Russia is putting up more satellites. More satellites means more accuracy and better coverage (if handheld makers choose to add a chip to read Glonass signals). Multiple systems happily coexist.

But what is also behind the battle for control of navigation technology is a fear that the United States could use its monopoly – the system was developed and is controlled by the military, after all – to switch off signals in a time of crisis.

Well, I guess. Before 2000, the US military did alter the signal, making civilian receivers less accurate than military ones. But today — as the article observes — GPS navigation has become vital. It would have to be a gigantic crisis before we did something that impaired the navigation of our own ambulance crews and search-and-rescue operations at home. If we were in a crisis serious enough to fuck with the whole world’s GPS navigation, that’s probably a crisis serious enough for all sorts of scary shit to shake loose. I don’t see it happening short of Armageddon.

When that happens, countries that choose to rely only on GPS, he said, would be falling into “a geopolitical trap” of American dominance of an important Internet-age infrastructure. The United States could theoretically deny navigation signals in countries like Iran or North Korea not just in time of war, but as a high-tech form of economic sanction that could wreak havoc on power grids, banking and other industries, he said.

I know of no way satellite signals can be selectively denied within specific geographic boundaries. We could mess with the whole signal, as was done before 2000, or a whole hemisphere, I guess. But I don’t know how you’d blackout one country. It’s everybody or nobody, and blocking everybody would be huge. [Correction: McGoo says it can be done over selective regions. And he actually seems to know what he’s talking about, which is a little spooky.] But I love the description of our era as the “Internet-age” — yeah, say, where did that Internet thing come from again?

The Russian project, of course, carries wide implications for militaries around the world by providing a navigation system not controlled by the Pentagon, complementing Moscow’s recently more assertive foreign policy stance.

You mean the purpose of the system is to provide signal to countries at war with America. Swell. It’s a good thing the whole article is nonsense. [Except apparently it isn’t nonsense, so this is even sweller. Here’s why the Russians and Chinese have a hair across their collective ass.]

The United States formally opened GPS to civilian users in 1993 by promising to provide it continually and for free around the world.

You’re welcome. Oh, wait…that wasn’t a thank you? Okay, this is like that Internet thing, isn’t it? We build it and pay for it and give it to you for free, and you bitch and whine that you don’t control it. Trust Russia instead. Good plan. You know they’ll do the right thing in a ‘crisis.’

“The network must be impeccable, better than GPS, and cheaper if we want clients to choose Glonass,” Putin said last month at a government meeting on Glonass, according to Interfax.

Cheaper than free? How does that work? It’s worth mentioning here that the Europeans embarked on their own version, Galileo, but abandoned it when the financiers decided they wouldn’t get their money back. Yeah. They were going to charge for it.

Look, I’m flailing around for a way of describing how stupid this article is. GPS satellites don’t “compete” in any meaningful sense. We’d be out nothing if the makers of GPS receivers decided to switch entirely over to the Russian system instead — other than being held hostage to a similar “geopolitical trap,” this one under the control of a sociopathic thug. We don’t make anything off providing the positioning signal. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The people who do make money — the manufacturers of GPS receivers, most of whom are American — benefit from an increased number of satellites in the air, assuming the extra accuracy and coverage is worth incorporating the chips needed to read new signals. It’s certainly a net plus for consumers (remember those blank spots in my breadcrumb trail?) It should be easy enough to build receivers that will read signal from all the navigation satellites, if the owners allow it (the Chinese are working on a system, too). The only possible advantage to do-it-yourself global positioning tech is the military one, and it’s lame.


Comment from jwpaine
Time: April 4, 2007, 4:00 pm

Great commentary. Reporters who write from such an arrogantly ignorant perspective should be required to wear paper hats and join the French Frying Legion.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: April 4, 2007, 4:27 pm

Didn’t somebody do a survey that concluded the more you know about a topic, the more contemptibly clueless you found newspaper coverage about that topic? We used to have science journalist who were good generalists; able to grasp the basics of an unfamiliar subject and explain it in turn.

Maybe I’m hypersensitive to the whole antiAmerican thing, but the tone of this one struck me as weirdly paranoid. I can’t help thinking how much better off Europe and Russia and the emerging powers might be if they stopped doing things purely to rival America and started trying to do interesting new stuff.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: April 4, 2007, 6:13 pm

One small correction: The US military can indeed deny GPS service to one area or region without disrupting or degrading service elsewhere. See the section on Selective Availability here:


This may be the real reason for the Ruskie and Chinese versions. They know they can’t rely upon ours in the event of hostilities.

GPS signals can also be selectively jammed or spoofed in a region by friend or foe, although the effectiveness of this technique is unknown (or inpublished).

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: April 4, 2007, 6:32 pm

Make that “Unpublished”. Jeesh.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: April 4, 2007, 6:50 pm

No, SA was the thing they turned off in 2000 that munged EVERYBODY’S civilian signal (I can’t tell if you’re pointing me to one specific footnote that says otherwise). I can certainly tell you GPS signals inside the US were all munged by Selective Availability prior to 2000 — why do that if they didn’t have to?

If they can jam by region at all, the borders have to be pretty damned soft. The satellites transmit what they transmit, good signal or bad. Techncially, how could you send a bad signal to Belgium and a good signal to France?

I hate to say it, incidentally, but Clinton turned off SA. That and Diet Dr Pepper are the only two things he and I agree on.

Comment from jwpaine
Time: April 4, 2007, 7:17 pm

There was a time newspaper editors wanted anyone but someone with a J-school diploma, for the painfully obvious reason that they’re trained in nothing else, whereas PoliSci, Science, Geology, etc., graduates actually know something. Besides, it’s equally obvious it doesn’t take four years to teach someone to write news stories. A literate 12-year-old could fill in for pretty much any working journalist today, and we’d never notice the difference.

Comment from jwpaine
Time: April 4, 2007, 7:18 pm

Oops, forgot to turn off the italics machine after “but”. Looks like I need a 12-year-old editor.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: April 4, 2007, 7:41 pm

I was referring to the article sub-heading “Selective Availability” a few pages down. Second-to-last sentence/paragraph, I think.

I already knew about the selective denial capability – I just had to find a reference for you, even a (ugh) Wiki.

SA is the civilian signal counterpart to the mil signal. The mil signal is called Y-something. SA is not jammed – it is randomly location-offset intentionally (by messing with the signal time-stamp coding, for instance) so the precision is reduced to about 10 yards (IIRC). They can make tis “offset” any number they want. The “offset” is what they turned off (set to zero) in 2000 under Slick Willie.

They pretty much had to since there were sites on the net that were making the instant-to-instant offset numbers available to civvies so they could correct their GPS SA data. Hee-hee.

The mil signal (a separate signal at a different frequency, btw) requires a decryption key etc to receive, and will locate to a nominal 30 cm. The SA signal is simply an “accuracy-reduced” version of this signal.

BTW: (I hate being serious) I worked as an EE at Rockwell in the late 70’s on (guess what?) Space & Secure telecommunications hardware design. Rockwell was one of the prime movers in the early GPS effort in the 70’s and 80’s.

I remember the first GPS units were “Manpacks” – which were knapsack sized things a soldier wore on his back. We’ve come a long way, baby!

I used to know a wee bit about this shite before I moved on to EM field modeling and plasma crap. Hey! I couldn’t help it. The math & physics was way more interesting. Comm hardware design is sooo boooooriiing.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: April 4, 2007, 7:57 pm


Hell, I liked the italics.

You make an argument I’ve been making (to anyone who would listen) for a long time. Journalists – as a group – generally don’t know sh#t. If they had any other intellectual interest at all – and a modicum of self-discipline – they’d have gotten a real education. In “something”! Anything!

I exaggerate to make the point, admittedly, and I grant due respect to the few world-class intelligent journalists out there. But most of them seemingly use their pathetic 12-year-old-level skills to force an agenda or their own uneducated opinions upon a naive world. And the world is the worse for it.

That is what’s so neat about blogs. Some (not all, by any means) of them can write very well, and they KNOW SOMETHING, or they provide a space for someone who does.

That’s why I laugh when MSM types snottily declare: “bloggers aren’t journalists”.

If I blogged, I’d say, “Thank you!”. And mean it.

Just flailin’ around, Sir. Love PB!

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: April 4, 2007, 8:32 pm


Section 2.4.4 of the Wiki article. It’s the second-to-last paragraph – which consists of one sentence.

“The US military has developed the ability to locally deny GPS (and other navigation services) to hostile forces in a specific area of crisis without affecting the rest of the world or its own military systems.[11]”

Sorry for the earlier lack of descriptive precision.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: April 5, 2007, 4:55 am

But how, McGoo? You could turn off a satellite or alter its signal when it got over a certain spot, but receivers can see (theoretically) to the horizon. How would you shut off signal to North Korea and not in South Korea?

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: April 5, 2007, 6:31 am

One way: The sats have multiple, directional antennas that are constantly steered as the sats follow their perscribed orbital paths. They don’t cover the whole hemisphere with one antenna. You just command them all to avoid planting any significant radiative “footprints” in the given area during their orbit. This is the key – ALL of ’em skip the region. Even the ones on the horizon.

It would vary slightly second to second, and would not be “perfect” – e.g. if they were blocking Texas, there would be some bleedover (under?) into LA or OK. But not much. The commercial receivers depend on a good, solid signal – as you’ve found out.

Also: I think the newest sats do sweep-broadcast, i.e. “scan” the hemisphere very rapidly, somewhat like the electron gun in a raster-scan TV. In this case it would be easy to simply turn signal content off during any portion of a sweep writing over the area to be excluded.

Note that the mil signals would be unaffected, and commercial signals elsewhere would also be fine.

I don’t know the exact method they use: I’m sure the details are still classified. But I do know that regional denial capability was designed in from the beginning. The thing was originally intended for predominantly-mil use, and the mil hates having its own tools used against them.

As I mentioned, I suspect that this denial capability is what has the Russian and Chinese panties in a twist. Even the Brits were a bit worried and figured that if they put up a system they could sell service to offset the cost. But the numbers didn’t work, especially when we’re giving it away for free.

My $.02

Comment from jwpaine
Time: April 5, 2007, 11:00 am

Thanks, Weasel. When I edited newspapers, I used to say that I could turn anyone who understood verb-subject agreement into a major daily newspaper reporter in two weeks. And three of the five reporters I trained thusly did in fact go on to work for the dailies. Since then, it’s been my opinion that college students major in journalism after they find the Ethnic Studies curriculum too demanding.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: April 5, 2007, 11:09 am

I blame Watergate. The way we think about newspapers changed overnight from “Front Page” to “All the King’s Men.”


Comment from Sarah D.
Time: April 8, 2007, 12:34 pm

People go into journalism to “make a difference”. Which totally counters what journalists are supposed to be doing, and the uni’s perpetuate this. The word needs an updated definition, somwhere along the lines of “activist”.

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