How is GPS free?


GPS has made a major impact on our world. How is it a free service that anyone with a phone can access? How is it profitable for companies to offer services like navigation without subscription fees or ads?

In: 1104

The US government spends tax revenues on maintaining the GPS satellites, and it understands that providing free location services boosts the economy in a wide variety of ways. An obvious example is the way the world’s smartphones mostly use software designed in California; whole industries have grown out of nothing because of the free availability of GPS. But in fact, there are a million ways that accurate location data benefits the economy. For example, simply getting deliveries to their destination quickly and accurately increases “productivity”: because of GPS, more people can do more work more efficiently. As a result, economic growth – and thus, tax revenues – increase.

The US government understands that provision of services from a social fund (taxes administered by a central government) is much more efficient than leaving it to the free market. It’s the same basis on which it provides roads, police forces, farm subsidies, not to mention all the industries which depend on the defence industry. It all helps economic growth, which helps everyone in society.

Left to the free market, we would have no satellites, let alone free ones. Everything to do with space is so expensive, and so risky, that no private corporation would ever invest in it; there would always be safer ways to use the investors’ money. It needs the government of a major industrial nation to take on the risk of failure. Luckily for all of us the US government, while pretending to hate socialism, actually spends trillions of dollars every year on projects like GPS which use social funding to create socially-owned assets which benefit society. It’s pure socialism.

GPS “receivers” are just radios that listen to broadcasts by specific satellites, and then use some math to calculate the location.

There is no back and forth data transmission at all. So there is no capacity limit and no extra costs for more users.

The US government created GPS as a military program. It would likely still be maintained even if no civilians used it, just like it was before it was opened up to the public.

The US military created it, and the signals were out there. Reagan ordered it opened up to civilians after Korean Air Flight 007 was shot down over bad navigation data, and things got affordable to regular consumers over the last 15 years.

Now, those satellites only tell you your coordinates. Map data is where the money is, and the big providers have spent millions and millions to get it built out. Which means recouping that requires either slipping in promoted search results, using your location data to add to ad profiles, pricing it in somewhere else, or using it as a loss leader to encourage use of other services.

Fundamentally, it would be impossible to tax GPS. The satellites are broadcasting their signal openly so that anybody with a reciever, a computer, and the relavant equations can use it. Trying to filter out those that paid and those that didn’t is basically impossible so instead the US government pays for the system as a public service.

You’re talking about two things. GPS refers to the system that allows you to work out your position based on satellite positions. The satellites are just clocks with radios attached, broadcasting an ID number and the time. Things that use GPS are simply radios that listen for the time and ID and use it to work out the radio’s position — You can have inifinite GPS receivers since there’s no going back and forth, and there’s no additional cost in supporting more. Today, you can buy GPS radio-on-a-chip for pennies. GPS, and it’s cousins (GPS was developed by the US government, there’s also EU, Russian, and Chinese systems) were put in place by governments that launched the satellites into orbit, and while that’s expensive, it’s justified as a boost for the military and for the economy (think the transportation industry). Once in space, there’s very little maintenance required to keep the system going.

The other thing you are thinking of are map and navigation services. GPS tells your radio where it is, but you want to see that on a map, or have a computer work out how to get from there to somewhere else, right? Some services do charge money for subscription, some are funded with advertising dollars, some just sell media with maps on them and you need to purchase new media to get updated maps (my Toyota’s GPS navigation). In the case of things like phones, the software often transmits the phone’s location, and that location data can be used to select ads to show the user, determine when a particular place is busy, get traffic pattern data that can be sold, etc.