GPS is a free system created by the United States government that uses 24 specially designed satellites to calculate the exact position and altitude of a receiving unit. Each of the satellites regularly transmits its location and time as they travel along 6 distinct orbits.
While the data is transmitted free of charge to the end-user, you will need to purchase a device that is capable of interpreting and displaying the data. Additionally, some devices will have integrated maps which might require a subscription, even though the underlying positional data is available for free.
Most modern cell phones have an integrated GPS receiver, providing a free way for users to receive GPS data, although you may be charged through your data plan to actually view your location on a map which will need to be downloaded.
Read more about using your phone as a GPS in this post: Can You Use Your Phone As A Marine GPS?
How Much Does GPS Cost?
The Global Positioning System is maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense. The operational cost of GPS is covered under the annual defence budget which is paid for using tax revenue, and as a result, the actual use of the data that is transmitted by the satellites is free to the general public.
Any device that is capable of receiving the signals and calculating the location of receiving unit, can do so freely. However, the U.S. Government does not provide maps for the receiving unit.
Most smartphones today now come with a GPS chip, that allows them to receive the satellite signals.
The GPS receiver’s chip is not connected to any data plan, therefore, even if data is turned off, a phone can still receive GPS data. As long as the phone is within range of at least 4 different GPS satellites, it is capable of calculating the location with pinpoint accuracy.
While the use of GPS is free for everyone, the apps that use these GPS signals to plot the phone’s location on a map, use data to download those maps.
Although there are a number of apps that allow you to download maps for free, many of these will not function properly if the phone is unable to connect to the Internet.
Why Is GPS Free?
The global positioning system was originally built for use by the military during the Cold War. All of this changed in 1983 when Soviet interceptors shot down Korean Air flight 007, killing everyone on board including U.S. Representative Larry McDonald. At the time of the incident, the 269 passengers and crew aboard the 747 were flying from Anchorage Alaska to Seoul Korea. Because of a navigational error, the jet accidentally flew through prohibited Soviet airspace and was shot down near the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Soviet Union had originally denied shooting down the Boeing 747 but later admitted to the atrocious act. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration changed the procedures for tracking aircraft that were flying in or out of Alaska. After former President Ronald Reagan learned that the Global Positioning System could have prevented the incident from occurring, he issued an Executive Order that allowed civilian access to the GPS signals.
Back in 1986, Magellan became the first manufacturer of consumer-based GPS receivers. The following year, Garmin began manufacturing its own GPS receivers. These initial units did not offer any form of a map, rather they merely provided the operator with their coordinates and altitude. For someone who was hiking in the woods, this gave them the information that they needed to identify their location on a paper map.
Are Dedicated GPS Receivers Free to Use?
Over the years, the use of paper-based navigational charts has been replaced by the use of GPS receiving units. These newer units not only provide the coordinates and altitude of the receiver but are also able to overlay this information on top of a digital chart. As a result, there was no longer a need to carry both a receiving unit as well as a paper map in order to determine one’s location in relation to the surrounding terrain.
While basic handheld GPS receivers start at around $50, higher-end units can cost as much as $1000, depending on the features. All GPS receivers come with some form of basic maps that are sufficient for most users. There is no requirement to sign up for a subscription service after purchasing a dedicated device unless you need maps with more details or features.
Has GPS Always Been Free?
The Global Positioning System consists of 24 satellites that are kept in a constant orbit, circumnavigating the globe twice every 24 hours. The initial cost to build, launch and place these satellites in orbit cost U.S. taxpayers over $12 billion. In order to keep those satellites in orbit, it costs U.S. taxpayers roughly $2 million per day. This nearly $2 billion per year expense is included in the annual defense budget.
While there is no fee to receive signals from the GPS satellites, to say that GPS is free would be an understatement. All of the funding to keep the Global Positioning System program operational is paid for using U.S. tax revenues. Accordingly, the US Department of Defense is responsible for the development and operation of the GPS program.
Ways to Access GPS For Free
When it comes to using the Global Positioning System you can either purchase a dedicated receiving unit or use an Android or Apple smartphone. Since the late 1990s, the number of phones that include a GPS receiving chip has grown dramatically. Today, if a phone is capable of using location services, then it is capable of accessing GPS for free.
There are a number of free applications that are capable of turning any smartphone into a GPS system. Unfortunately, most of these applications are designed for use within the city limits. As a result, they are not very accurate for use on the trail or out at sea. Most applications that are dedicated to nautical navigation require a monthly subscription.
One of the more popular free applications is created by Polaris. This navigational app was specifically designed for those seeking adventure outdoors. Rather than requiring a continuous data connection in order to function properly, the Polaris app provides free offline charts and maps that can be used just about anywhere.
C-Map is another popular application that provides a basic version for free. This particular navigational app was designed exclusively for nautical use and allows a user to plot out a course from one point to the next. Just like the Polaris app, C-Map also offers offline maps that can be downloaded to the smartphone prior to embarking on a journey. However, to access the more advanced features including weather data, there is a reoccurring monthly subscription fee.
Depending on your location, many state-level Department of Natural Resources offer their own free apps that provide detailed mapping of local waterways. These applications feature maps that were created by local fish and wildlife staff to help boaters navigate the local waterways more safely. However, because these applications are created for local use only, they will not provide information outside of their coverage area.
Why Pay for A Subscription?
If all you do is sail in familiar waters, then chances are you will not need any form of electronic navigation system at all.
However, even when boating in familiar areas, being out on the water can be dangerous. GPS systems not only assist you in avoiding dangerous situations, but they will also assist you in discovering new places to explore.
Check out my favourite apps for boating in this article: Top 8 Apps For Marine Navigation
For those who love fishing, using maps that feature depth markers as well as underwater contours can make catching that prize fish an easier task. But these more advanced charts are generally only available through a subscription service. While many apps offer free maps, the free versions do not provide as much detail on the underwater terrain.
At the same time, for those who love spending the day out on the open water with friends or family, it is important to be able to see other boaters in the area as well as interesting places to visit. The detailed maps that point out popular destinations to visit are also only available through subscription. Many of the applications that include subscription services will also provide details of other subscribers boating in the same area.
Do I Need A Subscription to Download A Single Map?
There are a number of different dedicated GPS devices that offer subscription-based services. Many phone-based apps also offer some form of subscription service as well. The services can be availed on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis, with discounts being offered for the longer subscription periods.
The services provide real-time information to its users to help them avoid other boaters or navigate through high-traffic areas. They may also provide information regarding sight-seeing destinations in the area, or popular fishing locations. More importantly, subscription-based GPS services provide regular updates to their detailed maps.
For most users of a dedicated GPS or other mobile devices, there is no need to sign up for a subscription service in order to download a single map. If you are an avid fisherman and need more detailed information about a specific waterway, then you can download the maps individually. There are a variety of different maps available, that provide greater detail than the basic maps that came with the device. Some of the more detailed maps are updated on a regular basis, and the price may even include lifetime access to the updates as they are released.