Italy and the GPS That Isn’t

Italy and the GPS That Isn’t

We utilize our iPhones to their fullest potential. We write our blog posts, take photos of bus and train schedules, take walking tours, keep up with our email and of course much much more. But without a doubt the most useful part of the iPhone while traveling is the GPS.

Too bad it doesn’t work in Italy.

How GPS Works

GPS is quite an amazing technology when you stop to think about it. As long as you have a GPS enabled device you can pinpoint your location on the planet. I’m not a GPS expert, but it basically works by finding your location in relation to the satellites orbiting the Earth.

Some people think that GPS works by sending a signal to the satellites, but it’s actually a much more earth bound action happening solely on your GPS unit. If you’re ever curious what it would take to communicate with a satellite from a handheld device Google satellite phone. They’re big (think Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell) and they’re uber expensive. That little GPS unit in your hand in no way sends a signal to a satellite.

So It Works Everywhere

Typically the only limitation of your GPS unit should be the maps that ate installed on it. Since we’re not receiving data from a satellite, simply calculating a position using a satellite, any maps that your device needs must either be installed or your device must download them from the Internet.

The iPhone falls into the latter group. The storage space for a planet worth of maps all the way down to the street level is massive. This is easily bypassed when the iPhone goes out to the net to grab your current map.

The downside of this method though is that, when you don’t have an Internet connection, you don’t have access to new maps. In the States this isn’t a problem as we have Internet access (data) through the cell network. Although in Europe we haven’t been so lucky.

Originally Marla’s phone was our “lifeline.” In London and Paris we used Marla’s phone for Internet access on the O2 network. Shortly after we arrived in Italy we were abruptly met with the crashing of her phone. A hardware failure. No phone with a cell connection, no Internet for maps.

This wasn’t a huge problem, we would simply punch in our planned destinations into my phone when we were on wifi and then download the maps (zoom in and drag the entire area so we would have the hi-res maps). This worked just fine, until GPS coordinates no longer worked.

No Internet Required For GPS .. Right?!

I forget exactly where it started but fairly early into our Italy excursion I noticed that I would frequently receive a “Your Location Could Not Be Determined” error.

At first this was sporadic, I think it first happened in La Spezia. Although Marla had heard that people complained about GPS being useless in the Cinque Terre so it didn’t come as a shock.

But then from La Spezia on our location would very rarely ever be discovered. Actually it would not work, unless we had an active Wifi connection.

This made no sense, GPS is an action completely independent of the Internet. Whether the maps are downloaded to the phone or not our location should be displayed (without the maps downloaded it simply shows our dot and a blank grey map).

After I realized that this was the case I found reports of others with the same exact issue. iPhone GPS in Italy only working with Wifi. This has me stumped. Some people reported that their normal Garmin or the like devices worked although others reported that those didn’t work either.

This has me wondering if Italy is simply in an area where the satellites used for GPS aren’t easily accessible or if there’s something else happening altogether. I believe the iPhone is just doing it’s best and calculating location based on the IP address of the wifi connection, but why GPS wouldn’t work as intended is perplexing.

I wish I could end this post with a groundbreaking revelation where I can help you get GPS on your next trip to Italy although I don’t yet know if there is one.

The best that I can offer at this time is to be aware that the GPS that you know and love may not work as expected when you’re traveling abroad.

Paper Maps, The Mark of the Traveler

One of the beauties of the iPhone maps is that we can easily navigate brand new areas without looking like out of towners. Being an out of towner is the default setting for a world traveller although you don’t want to look gullible. Just a little people watching will reveal how much of a target map navigating travelers are.

Anyway, when the maps aren’t loaded into the phone, usually because we’re exploring not planning ahead and downloading maps, then the paper maps are our sole resource.

The big thing I learned from using paper maps as we first entered a new city is that they’re not always that good. We had several maps that would flat out not list some street names. And if you’re familiar with European streets at all, some of them change names every block, so it can be an interesting exercise trying to pinpoint your exact location.

What maps were always excellent though? The ones from the hotels or hostels themselves. They typically had a custom map with, of course their location plotted as a big red dot, and all the major and minor streets listed with names between them and transportation.

Since we typically entered a new city via train, these maps are exactly what we needed when we got off the train. Having them afterwards was still nice, but once we had discovered the place we were staying we had already gotten a bit of a feel for the nearby area.

So those have been our experiences with both digital and analog navigation. If you have GPS have you ever found that it doesn’t work correctly in certain cities or areas? If you don’t use GPS what’s your go to map resource for a new city? Let us know in the comments.

3 responses to “Italy and the GPS That Isn’t”

  1. Dan Olavarria Avatar
    Dan Olavarria

    You’re trip sounded pretty amazing guys. I’m happy for you guys that you got to travel and explore Europe. As far as the whole gps thing, this is my basic understanding of it although you may probably already know this lol. On a sidenote I learned this from the science channel on the show “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.” The basic principle that allows gps devices to work is based on the breakdown of time. The capability, through the research of atoms and particles, to break down units of time to the nanosecond allows us to pinpoint our location on the surface of the earth. There are 3 or 4 satellites (don’t remember exactly) that are spread out in orbit and used by the gps device. The gps links up to all it’s satellites and sends signals out simultaneously to each of them. It’s the nanosecond time difference that it takes the signals to reach it’s corresponding satellites that allow the gps unit to figure out where on the earth it is at. In essence, it’s saying to itself, “I’m this far from satellite 1, this far from satellite 2, this far from satellite 3, etc….so this is my location.” Sorry if you already know this lol. As far as why gps isn’t working in that part of the world, I have no clue haha. Maybe the devices for some weird reason aren’t able to link up to all their satellites. Hey maybe it’s one of the few dead spots that are just caused by the way the system works. I have no idea.

    1. Jeff Sarris Avatar

      Thanks we had a blast!

      I was thinking the same thing about dead spots, I wonder if it’s possible that it’s just a whole dead zone for triangulating because of the location. Either way it was definitely an odd one. BTW Through the Wormhole looks like a interesting show, I think I’ll have to check that one out 🙂

  2. Fajar Gumilar Avatar

    i want to go there