Google’s Dance with Government

Google and the U.S. government are in a complex dance around innovation, data and privacy.

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At a Big Data conference at MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, touted a GoogleNow application that can alert him to leave early for a distant meeting to avoid traffic congestion. How? By accessing and integrating personal calendar information, California highway traffic information and the location of his phone.

There is an incredible investment of dollars and human labor hours behind that app. Much of it not even Google’s.

However many technological and organizational hurdles Google had to overcome to develop it, Google’s app rests on the shoulders of the U.S. government, which built and maintains the global positioning satellite system that allows most GPS devices to work (not to mention the federal government’s role in the development of the California highway system and its stewardship of public airwaves through which mobile phones operate).

The U.S. Department of Defense took about 21 years — from 1974 to 1995 — to complete the initial NAVSTAR system of 24 satellites, which was originally conceived to provide more precise weapon delivery. The system now uses 30 satellites, six of which act as replacements or spare parts. Four satellites are used to pinpoint a location.

The slog to completion included budget setbacks, technical complications, schedule slips and the Challenger space shuttle catastrophe. Commercial use took off only after the military stopped deliberately fuzzing satellite transmission signals in 2000.

Cost estimates for the first 21 years of the GPS program start at $8 billion (1995 dollars). Current plans to modernize the current system and increase GPS location accuracy from meters to centimeters may cost upward of $22 billion. At the same time, Japan, India and Great Britain are planning to add their own systems to the GPS mix. Russia is the only other country with a comparable, functional system.

The global value of the industry for products and services tied specifically to GPS, according to one estimate, will reach $28.9 billion by 2015. Such estimates don’t incorporate the $30 billion drop in Apple’s market capitalization after the iPhone 5 launched with great expectations, but also with a flawed GPS-based maps functionality, AppleMaps.

Google’s dependence on GPS is just the beginning of its complex relationship with the U.S. government.

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Topics

Competing With Data & Analytics

How does data inform business processes, offerings, and engagement with customers? This research looks at trends in the use of analytics, the evolution of analytics strategy, optimal team composition, and new opportunities for data-driven innovation.
See All Articles in This Section

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