Image: Wikimedia Commons
Blog Editor’s Note: The author of this piece is the President of the RNT Foundation.
On Feb. 12, the White House released an “Executive Order on Strengthening National Resilience through Responsible Use of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Services.”
It is gratifying to see White House attention to this issue. The increase in public awareness it brings will benefit individual users and the nation as a whole.
The order also hints at market driven solutions that could quickly improve America’s PNT resilience.
Unfortunately, the order fails to direct immediate action on this critical national and economic security issue. Instead it needlessly pushes most action and responsibility off for a year or more to do “more study.”
This is hard to understand as most of the “more study” has already been completed. For example, the order tells the Department of Commerce to take up to a year to examine PNT use in various sectors, and identify vulnerabilities and user needs. The Department of Homeland Security has already completed a National Risk Assessment and, according to congressional staff, has recently completed a report on user requirements mandated in 2017’s National Defense Authorization Act.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy is given a year to develop a plan to test robust and resilient non-GNSS PNT services (but is not required to actually do any testing). Congress mandated such a test program in 2017 and funded it with $10 million in 2018. After much delay, the Department of Transportation will complete the testing in May of this year.
The order gives the Department of Commerce six months to make available a time source to support critical infrastructure. For more than 60 years, the nation’s master clock has been available to users at the department’s NIST Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.
Note the challenge has not been the clock, but that the nation has no way — other than vulnerable GPS signals — to distribute time at the needed level of accuracy to millions of critical infrastructure nodes. Government studies in 2007 and 2014 determined that the best way to do this was with a ground-based system. The Department of Transportation’s ongoing testing program is examining this issue again.
Aside from increasing public awareness, the best thing the Executive Order does is to point a way forward for market-driven resilient PNT solutions.
The order calls for federal contracts to (in 21 months, if everyone does their jobs on time) require that vendors use existing and new resilient PNT sources.
If this eventually happens, the government could leverage its enormous influence in the market and stimulate creation of one or more commercial distribution systems for resilient, non-GNSS PNT. This is a great concept, and very much in keeping with America’s tradition of letting market forces solve some of its biggest problems.
But this solution will not spring into life on its own.
No commercial entity will invest tens of millions of dollars, or more, in a PNT system without assurance in advance of an income stream. Especially since federal contracting officers can and will waive the requirement if offerors cannot reasonably meet it.
If stimulating a market solution is the administration’s intent, it must stay actively involved and encourage the process for some time to come.
This includes complying with the 2018 law that requires establishment of at least one wireless, terrestrial, difficult-to-disrupt source to back up the timing signals provided by GPS.
Fortunately, this can be done by leveraging the free market at minimal cost and with little administrative effort.
By contracting to subscribe to a commercial service that will provide resilient PNT signals, the government need only invest a relatively small yearly sum using a fairly simple contract vehicle. Such a contracting technique has been used before with great success.
In 2007 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did this as a way to establish its ADS-B aviation tracking and safety network. Once the subscription contract was let, the commercial provider was able to get financing and quickly build out the system.
Today, the FAA gets the information it needs, doesn’t have the headache of owning and maintaining a large network, and even shares in the revenue the system owner earns from selling data to other companies.
Additional leadership needed
It is important to remember that, regardless of the issue, presidential pronouncements are not enough.
In 2004, President G.W. Bush directed a number of actions to protect the nation’s critical PNT, including establishment of a GPS backup capability. While 16 years later his directive is still official executive branch policy, that mandate and many others from his order are still unexecuted.
Real improvements to PNT resilience and our nation’s security depend not on one-time pronouncements, but continued leadership focus and engagement.
This is always a challenge for initiatives driven by the White House. It will be doubly so in this case as there is no clear department leader for civil PNT issues the administration can rely on while it attends to the next issue of the day.