Posted by: mikepearsonnz | August 24, 2010

19 billion reasons why we need a better GPS

Background are some things that we need as part of our national digital infrastructure.   These things are so fundamental to the economy that they should be a public good.

Time service

For example, the government funds the provision of time and frequency services for New Zealand.   One of my achievements in the e-government unit was enabling the supply of time for New Zealand networks over the Internet.   Accurate date/time underpins e-commerce activities such as:

  • Transactional software (e.g. stock exchange)
  • Commercial applications (e.g. TradeMe)
  • Mail and messaging-related client and servers

I am becoming increasingly concerned that we are missing another piece of national digital infrastructure.

Location service

GPS accuracy is not something people notice, when they use their smartphone to navigate to within 5 metres of a building.

I believe we need a location service in the form of better GPS.  Or to be more precise, we need a NZ Ground Based Augmentation System (GBAS), so we can cheaply determine location to 2-5 cm accuracy.

Better location data could benefit the New Zealand economy in the tens of millions of dollars over the next decade (report).  Some industries that could benefit include surveying, infrastructure development, construction and agriculture.

Should a Location Standard be a public good?

It is not yet determined how better location will be enabled in New Zealand.  LINZ is just starting work on the topic.

Late last year, LINZ gave an interesting presentation on the topic, to the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors Conference.  In their minds, the role of the Private and Public Sectors in the development of a better location network for New Zealand are undetermined.

What do I think?

I believe location is a key piece of national digital infrastructure, that should not be duplicated or owned by the private sector.

If such a basic digital commodity is charged for, then it creates a trade-off between data quality and cost.   My rule of thumb, is that people will often make a short term decision based on cost, because they will not bear the long term cost of poor data quality.

In an ideal world, our local authorities would cooperate at a regional level, to build regional sites which would be linked to LINZ’s backbone infrastructure.    To gain extra benefit, those same sites might also be used for provisioning regional mobile broadband, as they have similar operating characteristics (need for power, back haul connectivity,  high position, etc).

We all need to be asking those in power:

What is the role of central and local government in the development of a better location network for New Zealand?

$19 billion of buried treasure

I recently did some work for a small council, that had ~$230m invested in water assets.   This gave me a number of insights into how better location can add value to our economy on a daily basis.   It also gave me the idea for the title of this blog.

New Zealand has a large investment in underground hidden assets. I haven’t been able to google a total value for NZ, but there are 85 local authorities, so say $19 billion of our money, a large amount of which is out of sight.    Then we  have to add the value of underground assets from the private sector, such as energy companies (gas lines, power lines) and  telecommunication companies (phone lines, broadband).

The assets share the underground space. The underground space is shared by all these users.  Any one of them doing work in the shared underground space has the potential to disrupt other services.  After you have buried your asset, someone can come along, and lay something at a different depth, near your asset.  So you’re never completely certain what’s down there.

Everyone has trouble accurately locating those underground hidden assets. There is no overall view of the shared underground space.  There is uncertainty as to what is under the ground, and where exactly it is, for several reasons:

  • Historical information may be of poorer quality and may be incomplete.
  • Different levels of accuracy used when recording the location of assets  (+/- several metres).
  • Different levels of detail recorded for the asset e.g. a curved pipe is represented with start/end points, rather than several points along the pipe.
  • No sharing place for data

The productivity impact is that the service providers resort to hand shoveling versus using a digger, to locate services.

Broadband is going to change the financial impact of disruption. As we bury more broadband, the value of our underground assets is no longer the commodity price of water or electricity.  Rather it is the economic value of the information flowing through the underground fiber.  The financial impact for anyone interrupting that service will run into millions of dollars.  Unless we invest in better location information, there will be more hand shoveling in the future.



  1. +1!

    We definitely need a ground-based augmentation service, I wonder if it could somehow be integrated with the existing GeoNet groundstations?

    There has been talk overseas of embedding alert information (e.g. for disasters) into GPS signals, so it may provide an opportunity to value-add and create a broadcast alerting system that can reach the whole of the country.

    The more benefits that we can demonstrate, the better the business case would be that goes to Cabinet for funding (whether part or full).

    • Thanks Gavin. I think it makes sense to share core infrastructure, but it requires people to be innovative with the governance and ownership models.

      I don’t think there’s any justifiable business model for burying duplicate fiber in parallel trenches, erecting multiple cell towers in the same community or duplicating electronic trig points. It creates a multitude of downstream issues, such as longer payback time for all participants, interference between duplicate providers, complaints from the public about proliferation of ugly structures, etc.

  2. I just found out that Victoria, Australia has launched such a system,,-imagery-and-data/data/gpsnet

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