by Brian Hagberg
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
2/20/2015 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- GPS
has been broadcasting signals for nearly 40 years. During that time, a
number of myths, misconceptions, conspiracies and falsehoods that have
been raised. Let's examine 10 common myths surrounding GPS. This list is
presented in no particular order.
1. The U.S. military controls GPS
GPS is operated by the 2nd and 19th Space Operations Squadrons at
Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado; however, the U.S. Government owns
GPS and the program is paid for by U.S. taxpayers. According to GPS.gov,
GPS receives "national-level attention and guidance from a joint
civil/military body called the National Executive Committee for
Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing." The committee is
co-chaired by the Deputy Secretaries of Defense and Transportation.
2. The U.S. military has turned off civilian GPS signals for operational or combat purposes
Since being declared fully operational in 1995, GPS has never been
deactivated by the military for their exclusive use during combat
operations. There are millions of civilian users and monitors of GPS
around the world. If the U.S. military had turned off civilian GPS
signals, even for only a few seconds, those monitors would have made
sure everyone knew about it.
The bulk of this myth stems from what's known as Selective Availability,
which allowed the military to intentionally degrade public GPS signals
for national security reasons, most notably during Operations Desert
Shield and Desert Storm. In May 2000, President Bill Clinton directed
the government to discontinue use of SA and this policy has remained in
place ever since. President George W. Bush took the policy a step
further when, in September 2007, he announced that the government would
procure GPS III satellites, which do not have the SA feature. Once these
satellites achieve full operational status, SA will no longer be an
option, thus eliminating this myth permanently.
3. Military GPS is more accurate than civilian GPS
The accuracy of GPS signals in space is the same for both military and
civilian GPS, says GPS.gov. The main difference, for the time being, is
that military GPS operates on two signals, while civilian GPS operates
on one. However, civilian users will soon have two new signals to
operate on. In June 2014, a group consisting of 2 and 19 SOPS, Space and
Missile Systems Center, Headquarters Air Force Space Command, the
Department of Defense and Department of Transportation completed an
upgrade to current GPS satellites allowing them to broadcast the L2C and
L5 civilian signals. The signals are not yet fully operational, but
once they are, civilian users will have access to two signals as well.
4. The closer you get to a military base, the better your GPS signal will be
"So I'm sitting in a restaurant with my lovely wife and this guy at
another table, the kind of guy (who) talks loud so everyone is aware he
is an expert on whatever subject it is he's talking about, starts
talking about GPS," said Lt. Col. Matthew Brandt, 2nd Space Operations
Squadron commander. "My wife whispered to me, 'He's wrong, isn't he?'
'Oh yes,' I responded. 'He's way off.' After a while the guy boldly
proclaims to the entire restaurant, 'Of course, you know GPS always gets
better the closer you get to a military base!' and I promptly spit my
drink across the table."
As for being close to a military base, well, let's just say that my
TomTom has a hard time even finding Schriever, let alone getting a
signal boost when I'm there.
5. GPS resides only on phones, in cars and on hand-held display units
GPS is, and does, so much more than sit on your phone and wait for you
to ask directions to the nearest coffee shop. GPS technology affects our
lives in more ways than we could possibly imagine, from banking systems
and financial markets to communications networks and power grids to
weather forecasting and environmental protection efforts, GPS is
everywhere (and those are just a few of the civilian uses!). GPS touches
so many lives on a daily basis that the International Astronautical
Federation presented GPS with the IAF's 60th Anniversary award because
"GPS is the space program that touches and aids more humans every minute
of every day in every corner of the globe."
The government gave 2010 census data collectors GPS-enabled handheld
computers as part of a secret plot to take away our liberties
Census data collectors have been mapping home locations for a while now,
they just got an upgrade from paper and pencil to computers in 2010.
"The exact geographic location of each housing unit is critical to
ensure that when we publish census results for the entire country,
broken down by various geographic areas ranging from states, counties
and cities, to census blocks, we accurately represent the data for the
area in question," says the Census Bureau's website. The site goes on
to say an incorrect allocation of information to the wrong geographic
area would result in inaccurate data to two areas, which could affect
the distribution of funds to state, tribal and local governments.
7. The government uses GPS satellites to track/spy on us
The issue with this is, of course, the fact that the GPS device in cell
phones is a receiver, not a transmitter. Thus, your phone is not
constantly transmitting your position...unless you continue to utilize
the "Hey, here's where I am!" feature through various social media
8. GPS won't work if it's cloudy or there is bad weather
People tend to correlate GPS with what they know about satellite
television service, which is notorious for losing signal during times of
adverse weather conditions. The GPS version of "clear view of the sky,"
simply means the receivers need a signal path clear of obstructions
such as mountains or dense canopy, according to gpsreview.net. This
belief seems to have lost traction through the years as GPS technology
became more widely available.
9. If you get lost, it's GPS's fault
Some people have taken this one to the extreme. A Nevada couple heading
home from a trip to Oregon in 2009, followed their GPS down a service
road, got stuck in the snow and was stranded for three days before being
able to get a cell phone signal. The driver said he was simply
following directions from his GPS. This prompted some members of the
media to write stories blaming either aging GPS satellites or a weak
signal for the device leading the couple down the wrong road. The Air
Force felt compelled to set the record straight as the Air Force Space
Command Twitter account, @AFSpace, sent out this message: "While we do
not want to speculate on what caused the couple to get stuck in the
snow; the cause was not due to GPS signal."
"The signals that are coming down are very strong and healthy, said an
Air Force spokesperson at the time. "In the event one of our satellites
fails, we can immediately have another one up to have the full coverage
that we need." Even though there are 30-plus GPS satellites on orbit,
only 24 are active at any given time. This allows for immediate
replacement of signal if an issue arises with one of the satellites.
Users should also remember the satellites only provide the signals, it's
up to users to keep devices updated with current maps and information.
10. GPS navigation systems will always pick "the best route"
Most navigation systems will allow users to choose between shortest
route, quickest route, scenic route or whether to include toll roads.
These are all convenience services, but none of them purport to offer
the "best route." That's probably because the designers are busy having
the same discussions that have been occurring in gas stations and at
street corners for years, namely trying to determine exactly which is
the "best way to get to..." One thing current navigation systems can't
account for is "local knowledge" of an area. GPS doesn't know that
school lets out early every other Thursday or that everyone takes Main
Street to avoid rush hour traffic. These are things people need to
consider when determining which route to choose.
A special thanks to 2 SOPS members, Lt. Col. Matthew Brandt, Capt.
Achille Aloisi, Capt. Douglas Ruyle and Tech. Sgt. Abifarin Scott for
contributing to this list.