Slowly GPS is becoming a platform of incredible reach and power. It would be an over statement to say that it rivals the internet, but it is probably up there with the cellular networks. Beyond satnav devices, GPS is used to timestamp financial transactions, is relied upon by paging and mobile phone networks and is used in an ever increasing number of consumer and business applications from Foursquare to cargo and package tracking.
Our reliance on the system became clear in the US three years ago (from the LA Times):
San Diego found out first hand [that the world relies on GPS] in 2007, when the Navy accidentally jammed GPS signals in the area, knocking out cellphone service and a hospital’s emergency hospital paging system for doctors. New York experienced a similar problem a year later.
And the good news is that GPS is about to get more powerful due to an $8bn upgrade that starts imminently, although it will take ten years to complete. The upgrade will allow greater reliability and much more accurate positioning, down to an arms length from the 20ft or so accuracy today.
As you may know the GPS system is operated by the American military, which has worried governments in The European Union, Russia and China enough that they are developing their own rival systems. I await the interoperability challenges and opportunities that are bound to emerge.
I use GPS services daily via iPhone apps Foursquare and RunKeeper (which I use to track runs and bike rides) and via the maps on my Blackberry and iPhone, and I use it weekly via the satnav in my car. It is already one of the technology innovations of the last ten years that has impacted my life the most and I can only imagine its impact will increase as people innovate to take advantage of the greater accuracy that is coming with this upgrade.