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GPS backup funding continues Trump’s admire-the-problem approach

Headshot: Dana Goward

Dana Goward, President, Resilient PNT Foundation

The appropriation for fiscal year 2022 enacted this month included $15M for “Position navigation and timing [PNT] technologies and global positioning system [GPS] backup” in the Department of Transportation (DOT) budget. At first glance, this might seem like a small but important step toward establishment of the system or systems President Bush mandated in 2004, the Obama administration promised in 2015, and called for by law in 2018.

Make no mistake, having the issue mentioned in the act is a very positive step. Unfortunately, a careful read of the report that came with the appropriations act shows the funds are not for solving, but for continuing to admire, the problem.

Here’s what the appropriation report says (in italics) and what it means. This is based on our reading of the text and conversations with hill insiders who said they had a tough battle with the administration to get any funding or mention of PNT or “GPS backup” in the budget at all.

“The agreement provides $15,000,000 to establish a program…” – This is not really a lot of funding for any federal effort. It is enough to hire several people, set up an office, and maybe do a few studies.

“…that leads to wide adoption of multiple technologies that provides the necessary GPS backup and complementary PNT as identified by the Department’s report.” The report referred to is DOT’s January 2021 report to Congress on the GPS Backup Technology Demo.

Notice that the appropriation language talks about “[leading] to wide adoption of multiple technologies.” It makes no mention of establishing any systems or signals.

Theoretically, this might be done by following the path in the Trump administration’s 2020 Executive Order on responsible use of PNT. The order addresses critical infrastructure and encourages such users to protect themselves with alternate PNT services they find on their own.

DOT might try this with all users to achieve “wide adoption,” though there are many obstacles. Principal among these is that GPS is free while commercial services are not. Providers of alternative PNT services have long recognized that it is impossible for them to compete with free GPS and argued that the government needs to be the customer.

“…Funding will enable, among other things…” An interesting turn of phrase that seems to say, ‘you must do all of this, but if you have any money left over you can do other things.’ This is pretty much a throw-away phrase since, with this worklist, they won’t have money left over for anything else. In fact, they will probably come up short.

“…the development of safety-critical PNT requirements and standards…” In other words, study the problem some more. Developing requirements and standards is important, but it doesn’t provide anything for the United States to use when Putin jams GPS or there is a huge solar storm.

“…vulnerability and performance testing…” Again, more study and little to no progress implementing solutions.

“…certification protocols for safety-critical functions”… Still more study.

“…the procurement of services as deemed appropriate by the Department…” Some might see this as a ray of hope. It could, conceivably, allow DOT to contract for PNT signals from space, fiber, or terrestrial broadcast and move toward establishing one or more systems. Unfortunately, $15M isn’t much for such an effort, even if DOT didn’t have to also create an office and do all the required studies and standards. In this context “services” almost certainly means contracted staff to help with administration and hiring think tanks.

“…and user adoption models in order to facilitate the responsible use of resilient PNT services to meet Federal requirements for widespread adoption.”

Since there are no “federal requirements for widespread adoption” to meet, this seems like another throwaway phrase that someone thought sounded actiony and proactive.

Additionally, we are not sure what a “user adoption model” is.

The best translation we can come up with is “DOT must figure out how to get Americans to adopt alternate PNT services that are either expensive or haven’t been invented yet. All in the absence of a government mandate for them to do so.”

Most in the PNT community have long recognized the need to “get the bullseye off of GPS” by making it a less attractive target, while at the same time protecting the nation against a wide variety of threats to satellites and signals. For them, the language in this year’s appropriation bill can be discouraging.

Yet there is some reason for hope. At least the problem was discussed in the bill, and some money was put toward it, regardless of how flawed the underlying assumptions and mandated actions might be.

Maybe we should all take comfort in the old Hollywood maxim – “It doesn’t matter what they say as long as they are still talking about you.” Let’s all keep the conversation going.

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