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Tapping the Military’s Assets

It’s human nature, for example, to want something for nothing. The GPS network was developed for the military. Civilian usage was an afterthought. The Department of Defense (DOD) put limits on the accuracy of the civilian signal to protect national security, a practice the Air Force euphemistically calls “selective availability.” The satellites were paid for and are maintained by the military as a way for missile strikes to be launched with precision on military targets, using a technology based on triangulation.

“It was developed as a military system, and never intended for commercial use,” says Aaron Renenger, spokesperson for the GPS Joint Program Office at the Los Angeles Air Force Base. “It allows us to guide bombs to target within meters of accuracy, or to guide our soldiers on the ground. But in addition to the military use, we’ve now become stewards of a global utility for civilian applications. It’s a struggle to satisfy all of the competing interests.”

Commercial GPS businesses benefit directly from free use of the $17 billion in assets currently in orbit, plus an additional $500 million that DOD spends to monitor and maintain the satellites. Unlike other satellite-based industries, GPS vendors can be confident these assets will be maintained even in the event of damage from meteor showers or other acts of God. Furthermore, purchasers of GPS receivers benefit from having a free signal: There are no monthly service fees for accessing GPS.

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