Another Clash Over Territory In Outer Space

Commercial providers of corrected GPS signals fear Transportation and Defense will doom their business

Civil applications are blossoming for the $12 billion system of positioning satellites the Pentagon finished putting up last year -- in navigation, resource management, communications, even as a guide for hikers lost in the woods.

But the dozen or so firms that earn a living making the signal accurate enough for those uses fear the government is trying to take over their market, and their piece of a billion-dollar pie.

The Defense Department degrades the signal from its Global Positioning System of satellites, or GPS, on purpose so that enemies can't use it to aim missiles at U.S. cities. Even the hashed GPS signal is enough to establish a spot within 100 meters.

But that's not a precise enough measurement for many applications, and so a market has bloomed for about 12 companies that capture the signal and correct it to within a meter of accuracy. The tighter the signal a user needs, the more money the businesses charge for it. The market is obscure enough that no one knows exactly how much it's worth.

But a report by the Departments of Defense and Transportation, due by September 30, might render it worth not much at all.

The report is expected to recommend a government-wide system that corrects the satellite signal, and it would likely be made available for the private sector to lease. Commercial providers of corrected GPS, called differential or augmented GPS, expect their customers will turn to the government's system.

"It's hard to be in competition with the government because the government always provides better rates," said Mike Newsome of U.K.-based Racal, a DGPS provider.

Said Ronald Haley, president of Differential Corrections Inc. of Cupertino, Calif.: "If the government takes my tax dollars and competes with me, then that's a problem."

The government says its study, which will recommend what type of augmentation system to invest in, is merely trying to consolidate the efforts of federal agencies. "There is a concern that if every agency does what's best for its uses, the systems may be incompatible and resources will be wasted in developing them," said George Wiggers of the Transportation Department's Office of Economics.

Government Choices

At least two transportation agencies are studying how to correct the Pentagon's satellite signal for their needs. The Coast Guard is implementing a $15 million system that allows 10-meter accuracy.

When complete, it will cover roughly a third of the land mass of the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a system that will serve the whole country. This wide-area system would allow satellites to replace the expensive ground-based system now used for navigating and landing aircraft.

But critics say the Coast Guard's system falters in stormy weather and the aviation system, while great in the air, loses the signal in urban areas because of tall buildings. The Defense Department has national security problems with wide-area systems like the one the FAA plans. To provide augmentation services for a large area, the corrections are beamed from 22,000 miles above the Earth. But these signals can be intercepted. The Coast Guard's local-area method, which corrects the signal when it is closer to the ground, cannot be used for missile guidance.

The Department of Transportation is paying for the development of both these augmentation systems. And if a government-wide system is established, the department will pay for this as well, according to a December report prepared by a Defense-Transportation task force.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, will continue to pay for operating the constellation of 24 satellites. The uncorrected government signal will remain available for free.

Market Impact

Racal has already lost some business to the Coast Guard's GPS correction system, said Newsome. But he worries about losing a lot more if an official government-wide system is established, even if it offers only 10-meter accuracy. "Some [Racal] customers will be willing to live with less accuracy," he said.

The GPS market is a billion-dollar industry today, and is expected to be worth about $6 billion by 2000. Haley, of Differential Corrections, said fee structure will determine what effects a government-provided GPS correcting system will have on his industry. He thinks his firm can compete with the government if consumers are charged enough to recoup costs of establishing the augmentation system.

"But if the government gives it away for free, that will be a real problem," he said.


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