Media got the GPS story wrong
The headlines screamed: "President Bush prepares for possible GPS shutdown." And AOPA members were understandably concerned. Only trouble was, while the headlines were technically correct, they were also very wrong.
Very wrong, because what the President really did was sign a policy that guarantees GPS for civilian use. But what the reporters heard was a tidbit that the military could "turn off" GPS in a small area to prevent terrorists or hostile forces from using it. Nothing new there, the military has always been able to do that. But reporters who don't know much about the GPS system thought that was news. It wasn't, and they needlessly upset a lot of people for whom GPS is critical to their safety.
President Bush has signed a new policy that guarantees the availability and reliability of GPS for civilian use. And despite some exaggerated press reports, there is no imminent threat that GPS will be shut down.
"GPS is absolutely critical to safety of flight, particularly in the future as the FAA decommissions some land-based navigation aids and transitions to a satellite-based system," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "This new policy recognizes that and adds even greater protections for civilian use of GPS without user fees. This is tremendous news for general aviation."
AOPA provided significant input to the new presidential directive on global positioning system policy and was the only general aviation organization to participate in the process.
"The press got it wrong about a GPS shutdown," Boyer continued. "The military has always maintained the option to deny GPS to a hostile force within a limited geographical area, and they continue to have that option under this new policy. But now there is a very clear directive that this be done without unduly disrupting civilian use."
The White House said Wednesday that any shutdown of the system within parts of the United States would come under only the most remarkable circumstances. But the presidential directive is very clear: The government is to "provide uninterrupted availability of positioning, navigation, and timing services." In other words, the GPS signal is supposed to be available all the time to domestic users. (And it should be noted that the government kept the GPS system operating during the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.)
New in this policy is the coordinated effort of multiple agencies to protect the domestic GPS signal from accidental or intentional jamming.
"The White House expects the government to deal with interference in a matter of hours, rather than days," said Randy Kenagy, AOPA senior director of advanced technology. "The president directed the Defense, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Commerce departments to be aggressive in locating and eliminating any GPS interference, a fundamental necessity if the FAA expects pilots to use GPS as their primary navigation aid."
The military will continue its programs to deny hostile use of GPS in local theaters of operation, but such jamming must be done "without unduly disrupting civil and commercial access to civil positioning, navigation, and timing services outside an area of military operations, or for homeland security purposes," according to the directive.
And for the first time, the military is directed to not unduly disrupt GPS for training purposes. "We pushed to get that in the policy," said Kenagy. "That should mean fewer and smaller planned GPS outages in the United States." The directive also mandates a better system for notifying the public of GPS outages and interference.
Finally, the president ordered the military to consider civilian needs as it modernizes the global positioning system.
"All in all, this presidential directive is an extraordinary affirmation of GPS and its criticality to civilian activities," said AOPA President Boyer.
"And it's all the more gratifying thinking back to 1990 when AOPA told Congress, 'the Future Is Now,' and pushed for civilian use of the military's GPS system."
December 16, 2004