As our nation celebrates Infrastructure Week, it is important that we recognize how much we depend on critical infrastructure in our day-to-day lives. When we think about infrastructure, we often think about the big things we see – like our roads and bridges, transportation hubs and ports. But, other critical infrastructure we often don’t see – the utilities, energy, and technologies make up the backbone of how we function as a society. The world we live in today is highly dependent on critical infrastructure, including power grids, computer systems, and communication networks. Without these systems, modern society as we know it would come to a standstill. However, with increasing reliance on technology and interconnectedness, critical infrastructure is becoming increasingly vulnerable to disruptions and cyber-attacks – highlighting a growing need for resilience to protect these systems and prevent catastrophic consequences.
One critical component of our critical infrastructure is the Global Positioning System (GPS) and corresponding Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) services. GPS is a space-based satellite navigation system made up of 31 satellites, providing location and timing information to users worldwide. PNT services, enabled by GPS, provide for more precise and accurate location and timing information that essentially powers many critical infrastructure sectors such as financial services, transportation, communication, energy, and defense.
The dependence on GPS and its corresponding PNT services has become so ubiquitous that their failure could lead to severe consequences. For example, in the transportation sector, GPS helps regulate air traffic, navigation of ships, and even the timing and synchronization of traffic lights. In the energy sector, PNT services help synchronize power grids and support oil and gas pipelines. Timing synchronization with highly accurate clock information is essential to much of the infrastructure we rely on in our daily lives. PNT infrastructure, for example, keep servers across geographically disparate data centers accurately synchronized, while in finance and banking timing is the basis on which every transaction can have an accurate and reliable timestamp. Timing transactions globally and locally to the microsecond is fundamental to global finance as funds move quickly between accounts, and stocks and shares are traded in rapidly changing markets.
Recent articles around GPS jamming and spoofing in the Ukraine have highlighted the consequences – from Russian drones falling out of the sky to missiles missing their corresponding targets. Knowing how much GPS powers technology that enables our critical infrastructure, GPS and PNT vulnerabilities have been classified by CISA as a cybersecurity threat. With occasional GPS jamming and interference even here in the United States, there is a need for resilience. For example, In October of 2022, GPS interference lasting almost two days had a significant impact on the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including DFW Airport resulting in many commercial aircraft having to return to using navigation tools that pre-dated GPS to ensure safe flights – causing a runway to shut down resulting in flight delays and cancellations.
Resilience refers to the ability of systems to withstand and recover from disruptions, including cyber-attacks, physical damage, and natural disasters (even solar weather has the potential to impact GPS signals). GPS and PNT services’ resilience is crucial to ensuring the continued functioning of critical infrastructure, and there are technologies that exist today – including NextNav’s TerraPoiNT – that can provide a resilient, complementary layer to GPS.
To ensure GPS and PNT services’ resilience, there are several strategies that organizations can adopt. These include redundancy in critical systems, monitoring for GPS interference, regular testing, assessing and verification of systems’ integrity and points of vulnerability, and investing in complementary and backup systems that can provide alternative PNT solutions in case of a GPS outage.
While it may be great to celebrate the importance of our critical infrastructure this week, our critical infrastructure’s increasing dependence on GPS and PNT services highlights the need for resilience in these systems. A resilient PNT infrastructure is crucial to maintaining the functioning of our critical infrastructure and preventing catastrophic consequences in case of a failure. Let’s take the time during this week to champion the need for resiliency of our critical infrastructure. Federal, state, local and the private sector must come together to address this critical issue. As our nation works to modernize its infrastructure, let’s commit to include complementary GPS as an important part of the conversation.