Air Force responds to GPS outage concerns

The sky isn't falling and neither is the Global Positioning System

The sky isn't falling and neither is the Global Positioning System, the U.S. Air Force said during a Twitter news conference. "No, the GPS will not go down," tweeted Col. Dave Buckman of the Air Force's Space Command. "GAO points out, there is potential risk associated with a degradation in GPS performance."

"The issue is under control. We are working hard to get out the word. The issue is not whether GPS will stop working. There's only a small risk we will not continue to exceed our performance standard," the Air Force official said.

The tweet forum marked the first time Space Command has used its Twitter page for a scheduled forum. During the session, held Wednesday afternoon, the Air Force sought to allay fears raised by a Government Accounting Office report critical of its management of the GPS program.

"Agree w/ GAO thr's a potential risk, but GPS isn't falling out of the sky--we have plans 2 mitigate risk & prevent a gap," the Air Force officials said, in the clipped 140-character cadence of Twitter conversation.

The GAO report predicated only an 80 percent likelihood the Air Force would be able to maintain the full 24-satellite constellation over a period between 2010 and 2014. Going below 24 satellites could result in lower GPS performance, GAO said.

The danger of a GPS outage, though small, exists if the Air Force is unable to improve its satellite replacement program. Currently years behind, Space Command says it has plans to launch enough satellites to keep the constellation above the 24-satellite threshold.

"We have 30+ satellites on orbit now. We'll launch another in Aug 09, and again early 10. Going below 24 won't happen," the Air Force said, counting on an improvement in its ability to get satellites into space.

"We definitely need to keep this in perspective. Since 1995, GPS has never failed to exceed performance standards."

Delays in the $5.8 billion program have occurred for a variety of reasons, the GAO report stated. Among them is consolidation among companies that supply GPS hardware to the Air Force.

GPS vendors have, not surprisingly, also said the reports of GPS' possible demise have been overblown. Some customers have expressed concern over whether it is safe to invest in GPS devices and vendors have been quick to offer reassurance.

Bottom line: The Air Force says everything is covered, but if that had been true all along this flap would not have occurred. Because GPS is considered vital to national security, plus its wide use by business and consumers, it is reasonable to expect whatever funds necessary will be spent to keep GPS as operational as possible.

The Air Force's confident response is reasonable enough, but believing it requires at least a small leap of faith by GPS users.

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David Coursey

PC World (US online)
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