Analysis: Questions about GPS-for-a-fee business proposition

Published 10 July 2006

As more and more businesses use location-based services, and more and more consumers rely on them, why not loft satellites into space and offer GPS-information for a fee? Except that the pseudo random number (PRN) codes encrypting this information can be deciphered, and then the signal is available to all

Location-based services are becoming more and more popular, and big companies believe they can make a lot of money offering them. This is why, for example, Google and EarthLink joined to offer San Francisco residents free broadband access. The catch: Google will be tracking the calls an individual makes or receives while on the network, and then, using a GPS-based tracking system, will beam geographically-relevant advertising messages to the user’s hand-held device. Thus, if the caller happens to be walking about Fisherman’s Wharf, advertising for seafood restaurants will be beamed to his or her cell phone (we imagine that if callers happen to be anywhere near AT&T park, they will receive advertising for illicit performance-enhancing drugs).

Location-based services depend on GPS, and GPS depend on satellites. Now, GPS satellites which were put into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) are funded by U.S. taxpayers, so the signal is free. All consumers have to do is buy a receiver. Some clever businesspeople, however, figuring that the demand for location-based services will only grow and, as result, that the demand for satellite-based positioning service will also grow, pulled their resources together to build and loft into space a commercial GPS system, and they intended to charge for the location services the system would provide by charging a fee for pseudo random number (PRN) codes. A case in point: The 30-satellite, $4 billion GIOVE-A (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-A), a joint venture of the European Union, European Space Agency, and private investors. Galileo is Europe’s answer to the U.S. GPS (the system, by the way, will be completed by 2010).

Bad news for Galileo: Members of Cornell’s Global Positioning System (GPS) Laboratory have cracked the PRN codes of Galileo, despite efforts to keep the codes secret, and, as a result, consumers with navigation devices will have free access to the satellite’s positioning information. Galileo and GPS will share frequency bandwidths, so Europe and the United States signed an agreement mandating that some of Galileo’s PRN codes must be “open source.” That agreement notwithstanding, after broadcasting its first signals on 12 January 2006, none of GIOVE-A’s codes had been made public.

The Cornell group’s cracking of the code now forces GIOVE-A’s hand. Thus, on 1 April the Cornell group published on their Web site the final version of the code. The next day, NovAtel, a Canadian-based major manufacturer of GPS receivers, downloaded the codes from the Web site and within twenty minutes began tracking GIOVE-A for the first time.

It all means that the consortium behind Galileo now must go back to their business plan and work out the revenue projections. They may no longer look as rosy as before.