Obama proposes terminating system that backs up GPS

Telecom industry, federal agencies and specialists say growing risks to the Global Positioning System increase the need for it.

In his fiscal 2010 budget, President Obama killed funding for a system that would back up the much relied on Global Positioning System if it failed, despite calls from the telecom industry and federal agencies that it is needed.

The Homeland Security Department budget zeroes out funding for the Long Range Navigation System, or Loran-C, a terrestrial navigation system the Coast Guard operates.

DHS endorsed Loran-C a year ago as a backup for the satellite-based GPS, but in its fiscal 2010 budget, the department zeroed out funding for the system. Loran-C is "an antiquated navigation system that is no longer required by the armed forces, the transportation sector or the nation's security interests," said DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie. "And it is used only by a small segment of the population."

The decision to kill Loran-C is consistent with President Obama's agenda to cease continued funding outdated systems, Orluskie added.

DHS also reported that terminating the system would save the government $36 million in fiscal 2010 and $190 million during a five-year period, according to its budget.

The department is "continuing to assess the need for a GPS backup system, including alternatives and funding requirements and expects to complete the assessment later this summer," Orluskie said. "Our initial survey . . . indicates wide variances in backups, redundant systems or contingency plans. We will coordinate with other federal agencies to aggressively review and validate critical infrastructure and key resource sector requirements for GPS backup and redundant capabilities and contingency plans."

The Coast Guard upgraded 19 of the 24 Loran-C stations with modern electronics to broadcast an enhanced signal, called eLoran, which DHS said last year could operate as a backup to GPS. In a February 2008 statement, the department said eLoran will "mitigate any safety, security or economic effects of a GPS outage or disruption. . . .The signal strength and penetration capability of eLoran will provide support to first responders and other operators in environments GPS cannot support, such as under heavy foliage, in some underground areas and in dense high-rise structures."

Loran-C receivers determine position by calculating the time difference between signals received from a pair of radio transmitters and has a position accuracy of between 60 feet and 300 feet. eLoran broadcasts an additional data channel that can pinpoint someone's position between 26 feet and 65 feet, based on an estimate from the International Loran Association. Civil GPS receivers can determine location within 16 feet.

Robert Lilley, secretary of ILA, said by killing the system, DHS has ignored recommendations in the 2008 Federal Radio Navigation Plan to use eLoran as a GPS backup. The plan was developed by DHS and the Defense and Transportation departments, and released in January. The plan stated a combined GPS/eLoran receiver could be used to support aerial navigation and nonprecision landings if GPS signals were down.

Lilley said GPS is more than part of the nation's critical infrastructure like the networks that support the financial and electrical industries, but it is a critical superstructure that demands an eLoran backup.

Networks worldwide also use GPS to provide timing signals for communications, including cellular networks. The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, whose membership includes all U.S. telecom carriers, views eLoran as the only system that can provide the timing information.

Federal agencies have cited the Loran system as a required backup to GPS. The Federal Radio Navigation Plan said, "Many transportation safety of life applications depend on commercial communications systems" and because of that the Transportation Department "recognizes the importance of Loran as a backup to GPS for critical infrastructure applications requiring precise time and frequency."

Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center said in a 2001 report that a backup system was needed because GPS signals are susceptible to unintentional disruption by ionospheric effects and tall buildings and interference from other radio signal sources.

The report also warned the GPS signal is subject to degradation and could be jammed, and attacks on ground control stations could affect signals. Defense relies heavily on GPS for navigation and to guide precision munitions.

The chances of an assault on the GPS system have increased, according to a 2007 report issued by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which warned Congress that China is acquiring the means to attack GPS by various means, "including anti-satellite weapons, high-energy weapons . . . and ground attacks on Earth stations."

Richard Langley, a professor in the department of geodesy and geomatics engineering at the University of New Brunswick and a GPS specialist, said DHS' decision to zero out funds for Loran-C in the its 2010 budget is "completely misguided." Langley said numerous studies have concluded that GPS is vulnerable to unintentional and intentional disruptions in small to large areas for durations lasting from minutes to days.

"The policy decision was taken to terminate Loran-C," said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen. "Negotiations, discussions and outreach to stakeholders will continue [to find a] for a requirement for a backup for GPS. Should that backup become eLoran, that is something that will be addressed in the future."

He added any decision to use eLoran to support GPS will require interagency discussions. "DHS will have the lead in that effort," Allen said.