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New Foundation Aims to Take the Worry Out of Navigation and Timing Access

Wednesday, January 8th 2014
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Summary:

Citizens the world over depend upon the global positioning system (GPS) to help guide them to their destinations, whether they are tourists on vacation or emergency responders speeding to an accident. What would happen if GPS and related navigation and timing infrastructure went down?

The Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, Inc. (RNT), formed in August 2013, has a mission to "… lessen the burdens of government, protect critical infrastructure, support first responders, foster new technologies and applications, and promote public interest in resilient navigation and timing." (See press release.) Said another way, RNT wants to ensure that everyone who needs navigation and timing information will have access to it. That’s vital to individuals, companies and countries when GPS can be jammed by a high schooler in a basement. Directions Magazine interviewed Dana Goward, president and executive director of the foundation, to learn about its short- and long-term goals.

Directions Magazine(DM): Those in the geospatial industry probably have a strong sense of the world’s dependence on satellite signals for navigation and timing for infrastructure and the economy. What’s the simplest way to make that dependence clear to citizens and students?

Dana Goward (DG): Good question. We in the foundation ask ourselves that every day.

Navigation and timing has been called “the silent utility” for a good reason. The general public normally interacts with mapping programs, Web browsers, financial software and cell phone displays. Navigation and timing services are normally several layers below the interface.

I think the most effective way of raising public visibility would be for the geospatial industry to raise the issue itself. Unfortunately, my understanding is that some members of the industry and some important commercial users are unwilling to openly discuss this kind of vulnerability.

So perhaps the best way forward would be for members of the geospatial industry to work together to help solve, and mostly eliminate, the problem. While stricter laws and better enforcement to counter jamming and spoofing are needed, the more important step is creation of a difficult-to-disrupt terrestrial navigation and timing system in the U.S. to complement satellite signals. A system compatible with those used in the UK, Russia, China and elsewhere seems to be the most economical and effective. Working together, members of industry could either influence the government to establish this fairly inexpensive system, or create such a utility themselves. The RNT Foundation was established to support just such efforts.

DM: Among the objectives of the RNT Foundation is the creation of a public-private partnership between the federal government and a non-profit or for-profit entity to build and operate a resilient terrestrial navigation and timing system; currently the vision is to implement eLoran. Are there existing partnerships at this sort of scale that can help the public understand what these might look like and how they operate? Or is this a whole new way of thinking?

DG: Public-private partnerships can be found across society at all levels of government. They are essentially a form of contract between a government and a commercial entity where some or all of the revenue earned by the private partner comes from the enterprise that is created, rather than directly from the government.

Toll roads are one example. A state government, typically, will let a contract to build and maintain a highway and the contract will provide for the builder to receive some or all of the tolls for a certain period of time after the highway is opened. The recently opened express toll lanes in the Washington, D.C. metro area are a good example.

Military family housing is another good example. For decades the U.S. military built and maintained on-base housing itself. This was expensive and often distracted commanders from more mission-related tasks. Now it is fairly common in the military for the construction and operation of on-base housing to be done by a commercial entity. The government contributes the land and infrastructure (utilities, roads, etc.). The private party contributes the construction and management of the housing.

More information on these kinds of partnerships is available from The National Council For Public Private Partnerships at http://www.ncppp.org/.

DM: Another objective is a stronger reaction to the jamming and spoofing of GPS signals including tougher penalties and more effective detection. Why aren’t jamming and spoofing taken too seriously in the U.S. today? (See, for example, the recent story about a research experiment adjusting the route of a cruise ship.)

DG: I think that these cases are taken seriously by many in government, but the lack of public awareness mentioned earlier has deprived them of the tools they really need to be effective. It took almost two years to catch the Newark Airport jammer, and another two years to sanction him. Even then, though his jamming threatening the lives of passengers landing at Newark and consumed four years of effort by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and FCC [Federal Communications Commission], the government was only able to fine him $31,875.

Lack of public awareness has also prevented those in government who deal with this problem from effectively raising the issue to, and getting action from, policy makers. As mentioned, helping to change this is one of the core reasons the RNT Foundation was established.

By the way - we have been fortunate in the U.S. that jamming and spoofing incidents, as far as we know, have had only relatively minor and local effects. It is unquestionably only a matter of time before an accident or a bad actor causes a major disruption that will create national concern. Hopefully, with prompt action now, we will either be able to avert such an eventuality, or at least mitigate it so that the human and economic impacts will not be too widespread or too severe.

DM: It seems the RNT Foundation has given up on the U.S. government’s original plan to fund the upgrade of Loran-C to eLoran. Why was something which was at one point so key to Homeland Security so quickly scrapped?

DG: Not at all. We haven’t given up on government action. In 2007 the federal government announced the need for such a system and that it was going create it. In 2008 it restated both the need and its intentions to establish the system. The government has never retreated from those positions. The reasons the government has not yet acted are undoubtedly as complex as they are disturbing.

The RNT Foundation’s articles of incorporation include the phrase “to lessen the burdens of government.”  One of our core purposes is to find ways to help government do what is needed to protect critical infrastructure and the American public. We are talking to senior government officials regularly, both in Congress and in the administration, to carry forward this mission.

That said, industry work to address this issue on its own would also “lessen the burdens of government” and the RNT Foundation would support that path to success also.

DM: How can individuals and professional organizations involved in geospatial technology, surveying and other industries help this work move forward?

DG: Going to RNTFnd.org and becoming a member or donating to our non-profit is a great way to start. We offer both individual and corporate memberships and giving opportunities. We are working to solve this problem every day, all day. We are constantly in contact with congressional staffs, members of the administration, and representatives of industry on these issues. As a new organization conducting our first membership drive, we have been encouraged by the support we are receiving already, and hope many others will add their voices to ours.

We also encourage everyone to become better informed (our website also has a fairly good reference library), and to make their concerns known to their members of Congress.

It is interesting that one of the things we hear most often when we talk to folks on Capitol Hill about this is: “Why haven’t we heard about this before?”  So I think that everyone who knows about this issue has a responsibility to speak up and spread the message.


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