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RAND: Federal investment in timing network for GPS backup likely worthwhile

Study’s emphasis, timing of release, work against that, some say

timing architecture network PNT futuristic

Image: Panuwat Sikham/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The stated goal of a recently published RAND study was to answer a question from Congress about what should be done to back up and complement the nation’s GPS. One of its findings was that the government should consider investing in a national timing network.

Yet the study’s report emphasizes the wrong things, according to some. So much so that it is working against establishment of a timing network to reinforce GPS.

Report Misleading

“The main thrust of the study’s report is that we don’t need another GPS-like, system,” said Pat Diamond. “That has always been fairly obvious. I don’t know anyone who has ever advocated for duplicating GPS.” Diamond is CEO and founder of a network company and is a member of the president’s National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board.

“By pounding so hard on the ‘don’t duplicate GPS’ drum, RAND hides its more important findings,” he said. “The public message comes across as there is no need to do anything.”

Diamond thinks the study should have better highlighted the things the federal government should do. “That is really the question Congress wanted answered,” he said.

RAND’s study supports four federal initiatives that “… appear to be cost-effective or close to cost-effective.” Included are a “timing-only” GPS-backup and support of high performance “geographically limited” systems.

Timing Essential, GPS Backup Needed

Cover: NSTAC

Cover: NSTAC

GPS timing signals are used in a wide variety of technologies including cell phones, IT networks, digital broadcast, first responders’ hand-held radios, and to synchronize electrical grids. Yet these signals from space are weak and easily disrupted.

A recommendation for a GPS timing backup was part of a report to President Biden last month from the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC). The group of telecom CEOs and senior executives urged the administration to fund “a National Timing Architecture.”

A timing backup for GPS is also a long-standing recommendation of the president’s National Space-based PNT Advisory Board.

“There are few things more important to tech infrastructure today and tomorrow than timing,” according to Marc Weiss who was a lead researcher at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology for 35 years.

Weiss, along with Pat Diamond, co-authored the white paper “A Resilient National Timing Architecture” cited in the NSTAC report to the president.

Cost-Benefit Might Be Wrong Approach

Cover: Thomas Dunne Books

Cover: Thomas Dunne Books

The RAND study was a cost-benefit analysis, which some have argued was not the best approach.

“Cost-benefit is always tricky,” says Greg Winfree, Director of the Texas Transportation Institute. “There are always a lot of assumptions. Small changes to any of the inputs can radically change the outcomes.” Winfree led civil PNT efforts during the Obama administration as an official at the Department of Transportation (DOT).

“One of my big concerns is that GPS is so important to so many things in America, that it is one of the most attractive targets for our adversaries. At least one alternate PNT that most people can access takes the bullseye off GPS,” Winfree said.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University (GWU) agrees a diversity of PNT sources is important. At a recent GWU event, Pace commented having an alternative to GPS will contribute to national security and improve global stability. It will “lower the pressure on us to escalate and respond” should GPS satellites be damaged, or services disrupted. Pace was the Executive Secretary of the National Space Council in the Trump administration.

In the book The Russia Trap, author George Beebe has similar concerns, citing the lack of a backup for GPS as a technology resilience gap. Russia, China, and Iran all have terrestrial backups for PNT signals from space while the United States does not. Beebe says this is a weakness that can be exploited and could lead to an escalating series of exchanges resulting in all-out war.

Government Investment in Location Services

The RAND study suggestion for the government to invest in highly accurate PNT services in some limited geographic areas cited emergency responders’ needs for precise location. Federal investment will likely be required, it says, as commercial entities cannot make a business case everywhere service is needed.

GWU economics professor Diana Furchtgott-Roth has written that the federal government needs to provide a complement to GPS. She served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary at DOT from 2019 to 2021 leading civil PNT issues for the government.

“Without federal participation, commercial providers won’t ensure adequate resilient services for everyone. Some sectors, such as finance, will have it, but others won’t. This is a matter of national and homeland security. The RAND report did not emphasize this sufficiently.”

Questionable Timing and Motivation

“This is a particularly bad time for a confused message,” said a congressional staff member speaking about the RAND study. “Congress mandated a timing backup for GPS in 2018, though the project was never funded. There is real momentum this year to provide that funding, but the way this study reads works against that.”

Others see the structure of the study’s report and the timing of its release as a deliberate effort to derail budget negotiations. One retired Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official sees a pattern but is at a loss to explain the motivations behind it.

“RAND’s study was completed in 2019, and it was used as the basis for a DHS report to Congress in April 2020. But DHS didn’t tell Congress about RAND’s findings on a timing network and other actions the government should take,” they said.

“The study being made public now saying ‘do not back up GPS’ smells like a deliberate attempt to derail funding for the timing system. Something two presidential advisory boards, telecom leaders, RAND and so many others agree is needed.”

“Why would someone want to do that?” they asked. “Why would they want to keep America’s PNT so much weaker than China’s, Russia’s, and those of other countries?”

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