The future of GPS and the scary threat that could paralyze businesses

(This article is taken from Kiplinger Alerts, a new e-mail and web service.)

The Rising Cyberthreat to GPS

A growing problem for GPS: The U.S. doesn’t have a backup system. Most of our critical infrastructure, including power grids, banks, transportation systems and telecom networks, relies on the Global Positioning System. Beyond mapping for transportation and other location services, GPS is used for highly precise timing necessary for high-speed financial trading, wireless network synchronization and power grid synchronization. But the rising risk of a major outage goes largely unnoticed. “I think GPS vulnerability doesn’t attract much attention because there have not been any major calamities yet, unlike with cybersecurity,” says Marc Weiss, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

A disruption in GPS would paralyze scores of business and other services, and with GPS use on the increase, a plausible work-around is becoming critical. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office pegged the cost of a GPS outage in the billions of dollars, and that might be a vast understatement. Google and Boston Consulting Group concluded in a 2012 report that the value of geospatial services, only a portion of GPS’s total value, added up to $1.6 trillion in just the U.S. Experts point out that the potential for civil unrest would rise, too, as a variety of systems, from ATMs to cellular networks, go down. Intentional wireless jamming, solar flares, satellite malfunctions and foreign threats are among the rising threats to GPS.

When I ask Dana A. Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, about quantifying the value of GPS services, his response is blunt: “What’s the value of oxygen? GPS is oxygen. If it goes away, really, really bad things happen.” Goward, a former Coast Guard captain, spent years working in the federal government on the need for GPS backup before he retired in 2013. Now the head of the RNTF, a nonprofit that promotes the need for resilient navigation systems, Goward points out that GPS has become a ubiquitous and invisible utility.

A recent bill would put the Coast Guard in charge of restarting work on a land-based backup system, known as LORAN, which is short for long-range navigation system. The old system would get an overhaul that adds automation and stability. The cost to run the updated LORAN would be less than $50 million per year, a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of a major GPS disruption. Uncle Sam has kicked the can down the road for years when it comes to fortifying GPS. The need for a GPS backup system was identified at the end of the Clinton administration. After gaining some traction, the funding for a backup was scrapped by the Obama administration in 2009.

Researchers are also working on other alternative backup systems. In one project, federal researchers are eyeing wired telecom networks as a possible substitute in case GPS goes down. Recent tests involve CenturyLink’s fiber-optic lines using gear from Microsemi. The test spanned 93 miles and proved accurate enough to synchronize cell phones, but it wasn’t precise enough for other uses. More tests are planned into next year, including testing a link from Boulder, Colo., to Chicago, says Weiss.

GPS and other timing systems will be even more vital to modern life in the years ahead. Timing signals need to be even more precise for the rise of connected sensors, devices and machines, known as the Internet of Things. A government report from last year concludes that a lack of highly precise timing systems could stall new technologies, such as split-second collision avoidance systems in cars or communication links in a smart electric grid.

The U.S. is more at risk than countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, which all have some form of terrestrial backup system. GPS disruptions happen all the time because the signal is weak and extremely vulnerable to interference. “Terrorists can mount an attack with just a GPS jammer,” says Goward. The jammers can cost less than $50 each and are extremely hard to track and stop. Note that companies such as U.K.-based Spirent offer equipment that assists in detection of GPS jamming to help fend off such interference.

Sales of GPS equipment will jump once a backup system is in the works. Maker of GPS receivers, which have dealt with years of flat sales, stand to benefit, since a whole generation of equipment will need to be replaced to incorporate the backup system. Eventually, even consumer devices will get updated. Vendors of GPS gear and related services include UrsaNav, Chronos Technology, Garmin and Taviga.

Apple’s Business Updates

Apple’s new business-friendly products will lure more industrial customers. Apple’s latest major mobile software update, version iOS 10, plays nice with Cisco equipment to allow for faster Wi-Fi, enhanced calls, longer battery life and improved work apps. The update should help keep non-work-related web browsing from hogging bandwidth. Plus, businesses can make sure that only certain apps on company-issued devices are allowed to use cellular data to avoid extra charges. (So if you want to stream Netflix, you have to hop on Wi-Fi.) Another benefit for businesses: A strong platform for mobile security, since Apple closely monitors its app store and rolls out software updates quickly.

Compared with other types of IT gear, Apple can enhance productivity and lower maintenance costs, according to Tad Johnson, manager of product marketing at JAMF Software, a company that focuses exclusively on Apple products. “Apple users have fewer issues to call in and seek help from IT,” says Johnson, noting that savings reaped from low-cost devices can be quickly erased by employees constantly ringing up the IT help desk. More companies are using aftermarket devices or leasing equipment to cut down on spending. IPhones are surging in popularity for company-issued phones. Cheaper versions, such as the $399 iPhone SE, make Apple a more likely choice.

The iPhone 7 Plus will also be a big hit in the workplace. The newest phone in Apple’s line is equipped with two cameras, which can be useful in engineering and construction. Possible uses include measuring distances, mapping objects and making 3-D images. Another future use is taking 3-D photos and videos for virtual reality.

Drone Racing Takes Off

Drone racing is set to fly into local communities around the country. Surging interest in the high-speed sport is leading to scores of local competitions at indoor spots such as parking garages, sports complexes, abandoned warehouses, go-kart tracks and malls. Unused properties with ample space are ripe for races. Outdoor venues work, too. “One of the great things about drone racing is that you can do it anywhere,” says Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League.

Racers don goggles for a first-person view while their machines zip around an aerial track at 80 miles per hour. “I don’t know if you ever ride roller coasters, but it’s like that times ten,” says Art van Meeteren, an experienced information technology professional who runs RI Drone Racing, a club that hosts races at indoor sports complexes in Rhode Island. “The awareness of drone racing is going to dramatically increase,” says Pete Mauro, CEO and founder of Drone Squad, an app for drone racers and organizers. Mauro says, based on data from his app, that the sport has been “growing significantly” around the world.

Interest will soar through year-end as ESPN and other global TV networks start showing races and sales zoom for racing drones, goggles and related equipment. Standing to benefit: DJI, Parrot, Fat Shark and lots of other smaller sellers. Don’t be surprised if the sport starts to nip at the heels of popular car racing events. Drone racing is especially popular with millennial men around the world, particularly online on web streaming sites such as Twitch. Racing leagues will have no trouble landing sponsorships.

Look for drone racing to help boost local economies and create a pipeline of drone talent. Some indoor facilities will be able to collect rental income from drone groups. Nonprofits can also host races along with educational events to cultivate drone skills in young people. Races provide a way to learn about robotics, mechanical engineering, software development and more.

Tech Tidbits

Wondering if you should buy Facebook,, Netflix or Alphabet (formerly Google)? Check out the recent article “Best FANG Stocks for Tech Investors to Buy Now,” by my colleague Kathy Kristof, contributing editor to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Kathy examines the potential of the four tech behemoths.

The impact of the Yahoo data breach, which affected 500 million people, will linger for years. The personal information stolen, including names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth, is a gold mine for hackers looking to steal identities. The hack is sure to help business at identity monitoring services such as LifeLock, IDT911 and Experian.

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