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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.

April 4, 2007 — 10:11 am
Comments: 15