Would private industry have developed GPS?

I recently watched a documentary on the development history of GPS under the U.S. military. One interesting tidbit was that the astronomical costs of realizing a functioning global position system were justified only because it was deemed critical for military operations during the Cold War. Fast forward a few decades, and it’s safe to say that this government expenditure has had fairly useful civilian applications. Not only has an entire industry developed around GPS hardware and software development, but it has made navigation safer (e.g., civilian aviation), not to mention just plain more convenient (e.g., getting directions to that new restaurant).

Given the fact that GPS was an incredibly expensive project at the outset, would private industry have at some point developed its own system had the military not funded the R&D and satellite launch costs during the Cold War? As far as I know, the military still maintains the daily running of the satellites that comprise the GPS currently in use by most civilians.

One trouble is, I’m pretty sure the GPS satellites are broadcast only. They did have originally two or more signals with the civilian signal intentionally degraded. The Clinton administration ended this practice and improved resolution from something like 100 meters to 25 meters for civilian use. I’m not at all sure how this was enforced, and I’m not sure how a private organization could enforce others not using the signal without paying for it.

I doubt it. The amount of money they were throwing at GPS was phenomenal. I stepped off a plane in Dallas just before graduating college in 1979 and was offered my highest paying job at Texas Instruments without even an interview (other than a cursory one on campus). This was with about 25 other kids in my group that day. They also offered to pay for Masters degree part time as part of the package.

The Global Positioning System was not only incredibly expensive to develop and deploy, but required the ability to launch many satellites, which did not exist commercially prior to the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984. The first launch of an actual commercially developed launch vehicle, the Orbtial Sciences Pegasus air-launched SLV, did not occur until 1990. Most “commercial” space launches by US corporations have actually procured launch vehicles such as the Delta, Titan, and Atlas families via the United States Air Force (although produced and integrated by contractors such as ULA).

Of course, several companies have since deployed satellite consellations for commercial use, such as Iridium, Orbital’s ORBCOMM, and Globalstar. However, these are all in low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations whose positions and transit speeds are too low for reliable use in precision navigation. (It is noteworthy that all of these companies have also failed to demonstrate profitability.) The GPS navigation systems (and other worldwide navigation systems being deployed by Russia, the PRC, and ESA) have to be launched into far more energetic medium Earth orbits (MEO) or geosynchronous orbits.

The value of satellite navigation is obvious to us now, and the applications, from commercial aviation and surveying to recreational fishing and hiking have spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. However, all of the profit in that industry is on the receiver side, and profits on those are suprisingly thin. If not for the Department of Defense subsidizing the GPS system for commercial and recreational use (and later making the high fidelity signal freely available) it is almost certain that the commercial potential of GPS would be unrecognized and no single entity would be sufficient to fund development and deployment of the system in this timeframe.


There might have been a terrestrial equivalent, which I’ve read is coming into use to improve positioning accuracy beyond GPS in such places where GPS is unreliable such as inside buildings by using various radiowaves from known various long and short range sources

The obvious comparison is the EU’s equivalent system: Gallieo. When first mooted the intent was that there would be a mix of military, civilian and commercial use which would help pay for the system. The commercial capability is encrypted, so that users need to purchase access, but provides precision down to a few centimeters. However no-one believes that this commercial product will do anything more than pay a token contribution to the overall system costs. There was something of a scandal when projections for commercial revenue were found to be bogus. Of course the ubiquitous availability of free GPS reception, and the fact that the Galileo system will provide free access to precision compatible to the restricted military P channel of GPS make this extra precision a very hard sell. The Galileo system was nearly killed off a couple of times due to its high cost.

In addition you have the Russian Glosnas system.

Both systems have been built after the GPS system (well Galileo is in the very early stages, with only pathfinder satellites flying at the moment and no actual navigation capability) and at significant cost. Both the Russians and the EU felt that depending upon GPS alone (and by definition a system that was under the control of the US) was sufficiently insecure that they built their own. The Chinese are also making noises about building a nav system.

If you were to shoot down all the existing GPS satellites you could maybe make a commercial case for replacing them with new ones that encrypted the civilian channel and required payment to use. (Being evil, you still provide the C/A channel for the first few years, so that existing equipment still works, but announce that the precision will significantly degrade every year, but that new receiver chips that pay for the encryption key will work wonderfully.) Even here, I doubt that the numbers add up to commercial viability.

I was surprised to learn that Iridium’s current incarnation does appear to be making a modest profit now. It sounds like, had they been able to manage their current subscriber and revenue base in the early days, the original company might still be in business (thought certainly under-performing). It’s worth noting that they managed to launch 66 satellites at a record rate and cost.

Private Industry and Capitalism might like to think they’re the end all be all and “the invisible hand” will solve every problem, but GPS, The Internet, The Interstate Highway System, Space Capabilities, Satelites, and other things like that would never have been developed except by government programs, let alone all the science programs that have extended our knowledge and worked their way into our daily lives.

People who understand and even advocate for the free markets never claim this.

However, it’s almost certain that private industry would eventually develop something like GPS even if it wasn’t satellite based. It’s all a matter of time.

And those SOBs would have made you pay per use, or by endless subscription.
Thank the Lord that the government developed it.

Here’s a commercial alternative, although it really is more of a complement in situations where GPS is less useful.

Yeah, because the government spends money that they picked off tress, and so it doesn’t cost anything. If you’d like to argue about the free market system, perhaps you should open a thread in GD, rather than posting your opinion in a forum that is supposed to be devoted to discussing facts.

My mistake, I thought I was in IMHO.

Neither do true Scotsmen, so I hear.

Oh, so I guess you are not counting yourself among those “people who understand and even advocate for the free markets”. Unlike them, you do think the market would be bound to solve the problem eventually.

Nope. What I posted was not that fallacy. Or any other.

Markets don’t “solve problems”. The whole premise that poster was putting forth was flawed by making that assumption.

Certainly the government did use our tax dollars to build it, so it isn’t free. But compare to something like cell phone infrastructure. Most likely there would be some sort of subscription fee to be able to receive the GPS signals, which would be determined by supply and demand. In today’ reality, on the other hand, the government is giving it to us at cost.

Now that I think about it, I’m surprised that the government hasn’t taken advantage of this the same way they do by auctioning off RF bandwidth. They could charge a small license fee on every GPS device, like what Dolby has done with stereo noise reduction.

Should not that advice also apply to you?

The problem with GPS is that the only way of obtaining revenue is either to control access - which means encryption - or by licences - which for markets outside the control of the US government would mean patents. Patents on GPS would have expired well before the mass uptake of the system took off anyway. Since the C/A channel was never encrypted it wasn’t going to be possible to put the genie back in the bottle. The P channel is encrypted, but currently the US military has zero intention of letting the keys to that out.

Further the US government has historically had a remarkably sane attitude towards much government funded work. Basically that since it was funded by the US taxpayer, the US taxpayer has already paid for it and should not have to pay again. (This policy isn’t exactly absolute, and does seems to vary with political colour and time, but in general it seems hold and is something that those of us not in the US rather wish our own governments would take notice of.) I suspect that the idea of encrypting the C/A channel may well have been discussed, but for a range of reasons not done. Making the civilian receivers more complex and with the technology of the time significantly more expensive would have been considered a bad move.

With the benefit of hindsight, and with a few decades of Moore’s Law to aid us, GPS has taken on a ubiquity that it is doubtful anyone could have imagined in the 70’s when the system was first designed. I remember is about 1985 talking to a manager at a local chip design company and suggesting that they should look into designing a “navsat” receiver chipset. I had in my imagination something that looked like my little HP calculator, and read out the coordinates on its little LCD screen. I thought this would be way cool. The idea that a grain of rice sized chip that did it all would iive in the corner of a smart phone that was more powerful than any computer I had ever imagined just wasn’t on the horizon.

I wasn’t making a political statement. Simply pointing out that that nothing is free.

BAE are looking at using terrestrial signals