AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 100 jobs in the state and the safety of Mainers in the maritime industry are at risk as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano decides whether to continue deployment of a new generation of the Coast Guard’s Long Range Navigation system, known as LORAN.
The system uses pulsed radio signals from two or more transmitters to precisely determine the location of a ship, plane or vehicle. The United States has 25 transmitter locations, including two in Maine — at Caribou and Cape Elizabeth.
The new generation of the system, known as eLORAN, will replace obsolete transmitters with more efficient technology that provides a more stable signal.
“The new LORAN system, eLORAN, is needed as a backup to GPS,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said earlier this month. She is the ranking GOP senator on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “This is important for safety and security and it is important to Maine.”
The aging LORAN-C systems have been upgraded over the last decade at a cost of $160 million and Collins wants the department to further invest in upgrading the system instead of terminating the program entirely. The Department of Homeland Security budget passed last month leaves the decision whether to end the eLORAN program up to Napolitano after a period of public comment.
Staff at the Department of Homeland Security has argued a more effective and efficient system would be to provide several backups to parts of the Global Positioning System instead of an entire separate eLORAN system. Collins and committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman rejected that argument in a letter to Napolitano last month.
“The Independent Assessment Team estimated that the cost of deploying eLORAN technology would be approximately $100 million, which is about the same cost as dismantling the current LORAN infrastructure,” Collins wrote. “To put these costs into even greater perspective, full deployment of eLORAN as a robust nationwide backup to GPS would cost about one half the amount of placing one new GPS satellite in orbit.”
The newest generation of GPS satellites cost $750 million each and will replace the 31 aging satellites that first were put in space in the early 1990s. While the new generation of satellites has more power to transmit signals, eLORAN proponents argue there needs to be a backup for national security and commerce.
“The two technologies are opposite of each other,” said Zach Conover, president of CrossRate Technologies in Windham, which has designed eLORAN equipment. “GPS is a high-frequency, satellite-based low-power system and LORAN is the opposite. It is a land-based, high-powered, low-frequency system.”
He said each has its strengths and weaknesses and they complement each other. He said the latest generations of navigation systems integrate both GPS and LORAN to provide automatic backup to mariners. He said anyone with a hand-held GPS device understands its limitations.
“Have you ever tried to use one in the middle of a building?” Conover said.
He is a former Coast Guard officer who has worked with the LORAN system for years. He said there are studies that indicate the vulnerabilities of GPS and the need to have a backup in place. He said in Maine there are areas where heavy foliage or bad weather create thick cloud cover that disrupts GPS signals, but the LORAN signals are unaffected.
Conover said this week that many Maine commercial fishermen and lobstermen use both systems and have found that LORAN is more effective during some conditions and they also oppose the termination of the system.
“We’ve got 40 percent of the eLORAN business here in Maine, both companies like mine and companies that make the equipment,” Conover said. “Yes, there are jobs at risk.”
Peter Conlon, president of Nautel Inc. in Bangor, said that he will do everything to keep from reducing staff if his company loses eLORAN transmitter business. The firm makes several types of broadcast transmitters and employs about 40 people.“What bothers me is the loss of new jobs that we could have if eLORAN doesn’t go forward,” he said this week. “We were hoping, actually, to use this as a springboard for growth.”
Conlon said even if the United States does not decide to continue the deployment of the eLORAN, there are other nations that are using the technology so his company will still have a market, but he is uncertain how much of a market will remain if the U.S. ends its system.
“I think there will be other countries that will begin to second-guess their decision around eLORAN based on the leadership, or if I may say, the lack of leadership shown by the United States,” he said.
As part of the process to determine if eLORAN should be deployed, the Department of Homeland Security called for public comment on its future. More than 1,000 comments were filed and eLORAN supporters say 97 percent opposed its termination. The comment period is now over.
All four members of the state’s congressional delegation have opposed the end of the system, and Gov. John Baldacci is drafting a letter to Napolitano arguing against its termination.
A decision could be made as early as next month.