What Executive Order 13905 means for the future of PNT

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a cornerstone of the world economy.  A 2017 study by NIST and RTI estimated over $1.4 trillion in private sector benefits since the inception of GPS, with a rapid increase in the value of those benefits since 2012. 

The massive economic value of GPS is also a potential vulnerability, however.  Our increasing reliance on GPS for position, navigation, and timing (PNT) services means that disruption of those services would result in severe consequences for the economy – the study estimates a minimum $1 billion per day impact.

The impact of GPS outages isn’t merely theoretical.  In January 2015, a timing blip of just thirteen millionths of a second resulted in a cascading outage of GPS services.  Police, fire, and EMS services were disrupted in parts of the US.  The BBC’s digital radio service was out for two days.  Anomalies in the power grid were minimized only because short term backup timing systems were available.

Civil aviation relies heavily on GPS as well.  In this case, the vulnerability of unencrypted signals to GPS spoofing and jamming are a significant challenge.  A steady parade of minor incidents and near-misses over the last decade indicate that a major accident is probably just a matter of time.  The impact of GPS outages on drone aviation are also growing cause for concern.

Government action on resilient PNT

Realizing the strategic need for GPS alternatives and backup PNT services, Congress inserted language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act asking the executive branch to “assess and identify the technology-neutral requirements to backup and complement the positioning, navigation, and timing capabilities of the Global Positioning System for national security and critical infrastructure.”

That report (which was not publicly released) led to two subsequent actions.  On February 20, 2020 the President issued Executive Order 13905 on Strengthening National Resilience Through Responsible Use of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Services, and on April 8, 2020 the Department of Homeland Security issued its final Report on Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Backup and Complementary Capabilities to the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The PNT roadmap

The two documents are closely related, and together they lay out a relatively clear picture of how the government plans to build a resilient PNT ecosystem on the foundations of GPS. 

The DHS report concludes that instead of trying to build redundant PNT systems on its own, the Federal government “should focus on facilitating the availability and adoption of PNT sources in the open market.” 

The facilitating role would take the form of compiling operational requirements for PNT systems from different industry sectors and publishing guidelines for private sector companies to follow as they consider the creation of alternative PNT technologies.  This is operationalized in the executive order, which mandates the creation of “PNT profiles”.  Beyond simply documenting sector-specific needs, the profiles will also create a baseline for secure PNT services that industry can follow.

The adoption portion comes in the form of creating a market for resilient PNT options through regulation.  As noted in the DHS report, there’s little incentive beyond simple risk management for current users of GPS to add new technologies to their operational models.  The executive order seeks to change that by requiring that contractors incorporate alternative PNT technologies in the solutions they provide the government.   By demonstrating the commercial viability of resilient PNT through Federal contracts, the government hopes to spur broader adoption in other sectors of the economy.

Will it work?

Both the executive order and the DHS report assume that direct government investment in resilient PNT is not worth the cost, particularly for short term disruptions.  Yet they also assume that the government’s purchasing power will be sufficient to generate a market for alternative PNT solutions.

It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that neither of these assumptions will turn out to be valid. 

The NIST/RTI study’s estimate of $1b per day of damage to the economy was restricted to the known value of existing systems as measured over three years ago.  If the trends in that study hold true, the value of PNT services to the economy is now far higher. 

As autonomous systems like driverless cars, drones, and warehouse systems continue to expand, the cascading implications of even a short term GPS outage point to an increasing value of resilient systems.  At the same time, no single private sector entity has the wherewithal (or the desire) to build resilient PNT services on their own.  Only the government has those kinds of resources at its disposal.

Generating markets through regulatory requirements is also a very uncertain proposition.  For years, the government has attempted to build a market for strong software security through FedRAMP and other contracting standards.  The results are decidedly mixed – companies simply built parallel versions of their products to meet government standards, or decided to exit the government market altogether rather than bearing the cost of compliance.

The public-private partnership option

Perhaps as a hedge against these risks, the DHS report lays out another possible course:  a public-private partnership to develop and deploy PNT systems which are compatible with existing GPS infrastructure.  In this model, the government would incentivize the development of new technologies which work with existing chipsets, lowering the cost of deploying GPS alternatives.  The government would likely provide additional incentives to deploy transmission systems as well, cooperating with infrastructure providers on standards and providing subsidies to defray the cost of building out new networks.

From NextNav’s viewpoint as a provider of resilient PNT systems, it appears that EO 13905 is merely a hesitant step forward.  Recognizing the growing role that PNT plays in the economy, the government is right to start planning for resilient critical infrastructure layers.  Yet the assumption that government can generate a market for resilient PNT through regulation alone is probably wishful thinking.

In the absence of broad recognition in the marketplace of the risk to PNT services, it is unlikely that any one business or coalition of businesses will rush to fill the gap on their own.  The government is the only actor with the resources and motivations necessary to make resilient PNT a reality.  There are many forms that a public-private partnership can take, but all of them will require the government to exert a stronger influence on technology standards and invest directly in deployment.

The executive order and DHS report are the first steps in a long journey ahead.  As the government’s plans and PNT profiles start to gather momentum, a great deal more information about operational requirements, market dynamics, and deployment economics will likely come to light.  What we learn from these initial actions will lay the groundwork for what promises to be a significant effort to secure the PNT infrastructure we all rely on.

Learn more about TerraPoiNT, NextNav’s solution for resilient PNT.