Pathfinder or Paperweight?
Does Your GPS Have a Future?
By Tamia Nelson
September 6, 2011
Connoisseurs of irony are in for a treat. Only last week I was singing the praises of "the paddler electronic" — with more than a little help from some like‑minded readers. But what a difference seven days makes! This week I'm pointing out the danger of becoming too dependent on high‑tech gadgets. Before I get down to business, though, here's a little bit of backstory. When I took my first tentative steps out into the world beyond my parents' backyard, my navigation toolkit was pretty limited. I had my eyes, my ears, and my brain. And that was that. Still, I got by. By the time I was ready for kindergarten, however, my inventory of tools had grown to include a button compass, courtesy of Cracker Jack. It wasn't much of a compass, to be sure, but after my grandfather explained the magic behind the north‑seeking needle, I treasured it. Nonetheless, better compasses soon supplanted the Cracker Jack windfall, allied with a growing library of maps of all kinds.
Map and compass. You might say they helped me steer my course through life. I even worked as a cartographer for a time, surveying and mapping archaeological sites throughout a broad swathe of Canoe Country, using essentially the same instruments as those employed by David Thompson and other pioneering explorer‑mapmakers. Which may explain why I wasn't much interested when I first learned of the Global Positioning System. I was managing all right with my tried‑and‑true tools, a collection that now included a Brunton Pocket Transit and an inexpensive plastic sextant. The technology behind this toolkit was centuries old, of course, but nothing in my navigation locker needed batteries to function, and that gave me a comforting feeling of independence.
Yet GPS technology was steadily maturing. Consumer‑grade receivers were starting to appear in outfitters' catalogs with price tags that weren't much heftier than those on top‑of‑the‑line orienteering compasses. Then Farwell started working with a local nonprofit, compiling a guide to recreational trails. A GPS came with the job, and before long he was taking it with him on almost every outing. In short, he was hooked, and when the job ended, he bought a GPS of his own. Somewhat reluctantly, I followed suit. I was pleasantly surprised, though, and in due course I wrote about my new navigational tool here.
Fast‑forward to today. My Garmin Legend HCx is still going strong, and it's served me well both on and off the water. But its days may be numbered. There's …
A Cloud on the Horizon
Right now it's no larger than a man's hand (to borrow an image from a venerable source), but it casts an ominous shadow. The story takes us back to my earlier concerns about independence. As impressive as modern GPS receivers are — and mine tracks my movements with astonishing accuracy, even to the extent of faithfully recording my off‑trail "comfort stops" in dense tree cover — they are only as good as the satellite signals that feed them precise time and location data. It's a tenuous lifeline, at best, and GPS receivers are totally, irrevocably dependent on it. The satellite signals are faint, mere whispers that struggle to be heard among the many louder voices clamoring for attention across the broadcast spectrum. And they're easily jammed in consequence. Then again, regulatory bodies like the US Federal Communications Commission exist to insure that this won't happen, don't they? After all, the FCC vets every application for broadcast spectrum, and the agency is charged with ensuring that new users don't infringe on existing services. So the GPS frequencies are sacrosanct, right?
Well… Maybe not. In January of this year, the FCC signed off on an application by LightSquared, a Reston, Virginia, company that plans to put a wireless broadband network in place over most of the United States by 2015. So what's wrong with that, you ask? Constant connectivity is the name of the game, isn't it? And a very good thing it is, to be sure. But there's a problem: The LightSquared network will have a massive footprint, and as luck would have it, this heavy foot will come down hard on the portion of the broadcast spectrum allocated to the Global Positioning System. The result? Within a few years, in many places in the United States, present‑day GPS receivers may be so unreliable as to be useless. Think of the implications for a kayaker feeling her way along an ironbound coast in thick fog. Or a delivery‑truck driver heading down an unfamiliar rural road as a winter storm blows in. Or the pilot of a commuter jet trying to avoid a pocket of dangerous turbulence in high mountains. As any of these folks could tell you, there are times when knowing exactly where you are isn't just a convenience — it can be a matter of life and death.
Hyperbole? I wish it were. But the bleak scenario I've just painted isn't a fantasy conjured up by a motley group of conspiracy theorists, meeting in an old fallout shelter on nights when the moon is full. It is, in fact, the somber conclusion of a study commissioned by the notoriously sobersided US Federal Aviation Administration and published on July 12th of this year. You can read about it in PC Magazine, or if you have both patience and a working knowledge of bureaucratese, you can go right to the source: "LightSquared Aviation Impacts" [Attention! PDF].
Needless to say, the aviation industry won't take much comfort from this report's conclusions. Nor will the many trucking firms now using GPS to route and track their shipments. And the news hasn't escaped the attention of the makers of GPS receivers, either. In fact, they've been quick to question LightSquared's reassuring "don't worry, be happy" response to their concerns. Of course, the affected companies are all big players in the game — major "stakeholders," in modern regulatory jargon. They have millions of dollars (and many hundreds of lawyers) with which to defend their interests, not to mention the means to replace obsolete and inoperative receivers. But where does this leave recreational users like us?
Up in the Air …
That's where. Will LightSquared's planned broadband network soon give us no choice but to retask our GPS receivers as paperweights? Or can they be rescued from oblivion with a simple firmware upgrade? Or will we just have to accept on‑again, off‑again reliability as the new norm and move on? Only time will tell. This much at least is certain, though: If you learned to get around in the backcountry the old‑fashioned way, with map and compass and an eye for the tale every landscape tells, this might be a good time to brush up your skills. And if you've never mastered the art of navigating without batteries? Well, it's not too late to learn, is it?
You'll also want to keep up with the news. The links below will get you started, but don't stop there. Keep your eyes and ears open. This story has some distance to run yet, and I'm sure I won't be the only paddler following every twist and turn in the plot — especially if the time comes when I can no longer rely on my GPS to tell me when the next turn is coming up!
How quickly things change. Last week we were singing the praises of the electronic age. Now, however, our melody strikes a somber note, as we examine the emerging threat to one of the new technology's greatest boons to backcountry explorers: the ubiquitous GPS receiver. Does your GPS have a future? That question is now up in the air. But it might be a good time to brush up on your map and compass skills, just in case.
NB External links first, in reverse publication order
- "The Difference Engine: Off the Radar" [The Economist]
- "Report: LightSquared Rollout Will Kill 794 People" [PC Magazine]
- "LightSquared Aviation Impacts" [FAA PDF]
- "Garmin, Other GPS Companies Still Have a Problem with LightSquared" [KC BizBeat]
- "GPS and Me: An Unlikely Romance"
- "Where On Earth Is Tamia? Only Her GPS Knows for Sure"
Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.