The Global Positioning System (GPS) managed at Schriever Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs is operated from many satellites.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) managed at Schriever Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs is operated from many satellites.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) managed at Schriever Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs is operated from many satellites.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) managed at Schriever Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs is operated from many satellites.

GPS has been broadcasting signals for nearly 40 years. During that time, a number of myths, misconceptions and falsehoods have surfaced. Let’s examine some common myths surrounding GPS, which has a direct tie to Colorado Springs.

1. The U.S. military controls GPS. 

GPS is operated by the 2nd and 19th Space Operations Squadrons at Schriever Air Force Base; however, the U.S. government owns GPS and the program is paid for by U.S. taxpayers. According to GPS.gov, GPS receives “national-level attention and guidance from a joint civil/military body called the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing.” The committee is co-chaired by the Deputy Secretaries of Defense and Transportation.

2. The U.S. military has turned off civilian GPS signals for operational or combat purposes.

Since being declared fully operational in 1995, GPS has never been deactivated by the military for its exclusive use during combat operations. There are millions of civilian users and monitors of GPS around the world. If the U.S. military turned off civilian GPS signals, even for only a few seconds, those monitors would have made sure everyone knew about it.

This myth mainly stems from what’s known as Selective Availability, which allowed the military to intentionally degrade public GPS signals for national security reasons, most notably during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In May 2000, President Bill Clinton directed the government to discontinue use of SA and this policy has remained in place ever since. President George W. Bush took the policy a step further in September 2007, announcing that the government would procure GPS III satellites, which do not have the SA feature. Once these satellites achieve full operational status, SA will no longer be an option, thus eliminating this myth permanently.

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3. Military GPS is more accurate than civilian GPS. 

The accuracy of GPS signals in space is the same for both military and civilian GPS, says GPS.gov. The main difference, for the time being, is that military GPS operates on two signals, while civilian GPS operates on one. However, civilian users will soon have two new signals.

4. The closer you get to a military base, the better your GPS signal will be.

“So I’m sitting in a restaurant with my lovely wife and this guy at another table, the kind of guy [who] talks loud so everyone is aware he is an expert on whatever subject it is he’s talking about, starts talking about GPS,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Brandt, 2nd Space Operations Squadron commander. “My wife whispered to me, ‘He’s wrong, isn’t he?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I responded. ‘He’s way off.’ After a while the guy boldly proclaims to the entire restaurant, ‘Of course, you know GPS always gets better the closer you get to a military base!’ and I promptly spit my drink across the table.”

5. GPS resides only on phones, in cars and on hand-held display units.

GPS technology affects our lives in more ways than we could possibly imagine, from banking systems and financial markets to communications networks and power grids to weather forecasting and environmental protection efforts.

6. The government gave 2010 census data collectors GPS-enabled handheld computers as part of a secret plot to take away our liberties.

Census data collectors have been mapping home locations for a while; they got an upgrade from paper and pencil to computers in 2010. “The exact geographic location of each housing unit is critical to ensure that when we publish census results for the entire country, broken down by various geographic areas ranging from states, counties and cities, to census blocks, we accurately represent the data for the area in question,” says the Census Bureau’s website.

7. The government uses GPS satellites to track/spy on us.

The GPS device in cell phones is a receiver, not a transmitter. Thus, your phone is not constantly transmitting your position … unless you continue to utilize the “Hey, here’s where I am!” feature through various social media platforms. (However, according to traveltips.usatoday.com, trilateration uses the distance between satellites and the receiver to create overlapping “spheres” that intersect in a circle. The intersection is your location on the ground.)

8. GPS won’t work if it’s cloudy or there is bad weather.

People tend to correlate GPS with satellite television service, which is notorious for losing signal during adverse weather conditions. The GPS version of “clear view of the sky” simply means receivers need a signal path clear of obstructions such as mountains or dense canopy, according to gpsreview.net.

9. If you get lost, it’s GPS’ fault.

Some people have taken this one to the extreme. A Nevada couple heading home from a trip to Oregon in 2009, followed their GPS down a service road, got stuck in the snow and were stranded for three days. The driver said he was simply following directions from his GPS. The Air Force set the record straight as the Air Force Space Command Twitter account, @AFSpace, sent out this message: “While we do not want to speculate on what caused the couple to get stuck in the snow; the cause was not due to GPS signal.”

Though there are 30-plus GPS satellites on orbit, only 24 are active at any given time. This allows for immediate replacement of signal if an issue arises with one of the satellites. Users should also remember the satellites only provide the signals; it’s up to users to keep devices updated with current maps and information.

10. GPS navigation systems will always pick “the best route.”

Most navigation systems allow users to choose between shortest route, quickest route, scenic route or whether to include toll roads. These are all convenience services, but none purport to offer the “best route.” That’s probably because the designers are busy having the same discussions that have been occurring in gas stations and at street corners for years, namely trying to determine exactly which is the “best way to get to…” One thing current navigation systems can’t account for is local knowledge. GPS doesn’t know that school lets out early every other Thursday or that everyone takes Main Street to avoid rush hour traffic.