... 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....