There are many sources of possible errors that will degrade the accuracy of positions computed by a GPS receiver. The travel time of GPS satellite signals can be altered by atmospheric effects; when a GPS signal passes through the ionosphere and troposphere it is refracted, causing the speed of the signal to be different from the speed of a GPS signal in space. Sunspot activity also causes interference with GPS signals. Another source of error is measurement noise, or distortion of the signal caused by electrical interference or errors inherent in the GPS receiver itself. Errors in the ephemeris data (the information about satellite orbits) will also cause errors in computed positions, because the satellites weren’t really where the GPS receiver “thought” they were (based on the information it received) when it computed the positions. Small variations in the atomic clocks (clock drift) on board the satellites can translate to large position errors; a clock error of 1 nanosecond translates to 1 foot or .3 meters user error on the ground. Multipath effects arise when signals transmitted from the satellites bounce off a reflective surface before getting to the receiver antenna. When this happens, the receiver gets the signal in straight line path as well as delayed path (multiple paths). The effect is similar to a ghost or double image on a TV set.

Geometric Dilution of Precision (GDOP)
Satellite geometry can also affect the accuracy of GPS positioning. This effect is called Geometric Dilution of Precision (GDOP). GDOP refers to where the satellites are in relation to one another, and is a measure of the quality of the satellite configuration. It can magnify or lessen other GPS errors. In general, the wider the angle between satellites, the better the measurement (see GPS Basics slide show for an illustration). Most GPS receivers select the satellite constellation that will give the least uncertainty, the best satellite geometry.

GPS receivers usually report the quality of satellite geometry in terms of Position Dilution of Precision, or PDOP. PDOP refers to horizontal (HDOP) and vertical (VDOP) measurements (latitude, longitude and altitude). You can check the quality of the satellite configuration your receiver is currently using by looking at the PDOP value. A low DOP indicates a higher probability of accuracy, and a high DOP indicates a lower probability of accuracy. A PDOP of 4 or less is excellent, a PDOP between 5 AND 8 is acceptable, and a PDOP of 9 or greater is poor. Another term you may encounter is TDOP, or Time Dilution of Precision. TDOP refers to satellite clock offset. On a GPS receiver you can set a parameter known as the PDOP mask. This will cause the receiver to ignore satellite configurations that have a PDOP higher than the limit you specify.

Selective Availability (SA)
Selective Availability, or SA, occurred when the DoD intentionally degraded the accuracy of GPS signals by introducing artificial clock and ephemeris errors. When SA was implemented, it was the largest component of GPS error, causing error of up to 100 meters. SA is a component of the Standard Positioning Service (SPS), which was formally implemented on March 25, 1990, and was intended to protect national defense. SA was turned off on May 1, 2000.

Following Table lists the possible sources of GPS error and their general impact on positioning accuracy:

Table – GPS Error Budget

Error source Potential error Typical error
Ionosphere 5.0 meters 0.4 meters
Troposphere 0.5 meters 0.2 meters
Ephemeris data 2.5 meters 0 meters
Satellite clock drift 1.5 meters 0 meters
Multipath 0.6 meters 0.6 meters
Measurement noise 0.3 meters 0.3 meters
Total ~15 meters ~10 meters