If you're looking for something new to worry about...[IMPROVED!!]

... how about the prospect that the GPS system will be the next part of America's neglected infrastructure to be in trouble, with ripple effects on modern commercial life?

It is impossible to overstate the importance of GPS to the worldwide modern economy. Trivial recent example: the other night in Beijing, my wife and I were lost getting to an address. Didn't see street signs around, although streets in big Chinese cities are usually very well marked. We pulled up the Google Map function on my Blackberry, and it showed us (via the "my location" function) that the street we were looking for was the one we just passed rather than the one still ahead. [This cut is an important improvement to the post! On the reasons for this improvement, see below*] Multiply this a million-fold each day in operations of the world's navigation and transportation functions, and you see how economic life is being built on GPS almost in the way it has been built on electricity over the last hundred years. The world's airlines, to choose one obvious case, would be in huge trouble without reliable GPS.

And so it is with heavy heart that we learn about a new Government Accountability Office study (here in PDF), via Michael Cooney's story in NetworkWorld, saying that the U.S. Air Force, which runs the GPS satellites, has not managed to get new "IIF"-model satellites ready in time to replace the ones that are wearing out.


For years, other countries have said they needed their own alternative to the GPS system, precisely because it was run by the U.S. military and, in times of crisis, could be used as a strategic tool. Simplest version of the fear: that in an emergency the US could block or encode signals so that only its own receivers could interpret them, meaning the American military would know where it was going and no one else would. You can get the idea from the illustration below, included in the GAO report, showing sample "aviation" and "ground navigation" uses for GPS.

There's a long history on this score, mainly involving the European Galileo project, plus Russian and Chinese efforts; plus the Pentagon's gradual willingness to make high-precision signals available to the world generally, rather than deliberately fuzzing the open-use civilian version. All for another time; I invite you to look it up for yourself. 

But the nightmare scenario no one thought to worry about was that the US-run system would start to crumble and wear out. Arrrgghh!
* IMPROVEMENT!!!:  Let me quickly shift from Arrrggghh to OOOOOPSSS!  Let's entirely forget that struck-out part above, in light of this item from TelecomAsia.net that a technically sophisticated friend just sent me.

Ummm, I don't know what I could have been thinking. Of course my Blackberry couldn't do anything like that....
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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