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GPS Navigation May Fail Next Year

A report stemming from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns that the nation's Global Positioning System (GPS) may begin to fail next year due to a lack of funding and mismanagement by the United States Air Force.

Although the Air Force is currently working on upgrading the current twenty-year-old system, the firm believes that its efforts to acquire new satellites may be too late to maintain the current GPS system without interruption. This is certainly not good news for millions of consumers and business that depend on GPS navigation on a day to day basis; the military would be just as affected if gaps were to occur, and could pose a problem with national security.

The firm points to a major problem with the internal management within the Air Force, claiming that there's no single point of authority for space programs, and that the frequent turnover in program managers have "hampered" resource allocation and funding stability for the GPS upgrade program.  "If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to," said the firm.

As stated in the 15-page report, the Air Force has struggled to build successful GPS satellites on schedule and within the budget, encountering "significant" technical problems as well as dealing with a different contractor. Both roadblocks have thus delayed the launch of a new, replacement next-generation GPS satellite--scheduled to hit the outer atmosphere by November 2009--by almost three years. The current update program for the entire GPS constellation has already overshot its original budget limit by about $879 million.

For now, the current GPS constellation consists of 31 working satellites, many of which are four years older than their original life expectancy (only 3 satellites are needed to provide an accurate fix). The firm said that that there's a one in five chance that the constellation will drop below the minimum 24 satellites needed to cover the globe at various times between 2011 and 2012 (the same year aliens will invade the earth, the world will end, and the Internet will come to a screeching halt).

Meanwhile, as the American government struggles to keep its GPS system functional, other networks may take advantage of the situation. The Glonass Russian satellite system is the second largest GPS constellation, consisting of 19 operational satellites. China plans to launch an operational GPS system by 2011, and Europe's Galileo network, designed to rival the American GPS network, is scheduled to launch next year.

Although the US GPS system is virtually free to all American consumers and businesses (outside 3rd party applications, that is), the government plans to deposit a whopping $5.8 billion into the upgrade process over the next 5 years, addressing the individual satellites and ground control segments. However, despite the recent shortcomings in launching the first next-gen satellite, many GPS firms are naturally staying positive, reporting that there's nothing to worry about.

"We would agree with the notion that the GAO is admonishing the various government entities to work together so that... GPS service remains uninterrupted," Ted Gartner, a spokesman for Garmin, said in a statement. "There's no reason to fear that there will be a significant outage or service interruption."