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Acquiring Satellites


Acquiring Satellites, Awaiting Satellite Signal, The GPS signal was lost x seconds ago… This is the time of year when we start getting lots of questions about this message with people frustrated that their GPS “doesn’t work”. So what does this error message mean, and what (if anything) can you do to your GPS to make it get a signal faster?

In order to determine your location, a GPS needs to listen to the network of GPS satellites. In order to listen to the satellites, it helps if the GPS can predict “where” to listen for the signal. And in order to know where to listen, it helps to know where you are…. a nice little catch-22. (I’m oversimplifying things a bit for the sake of not conducting a physics class when people just want their GPS to work.)

So how do you get around this catch-22?

Tips for New GPS Devices

  • Make Sure the GPS has a good, clear view of the sky. “Clear” does not need to be sunny. Overcast skies have no noticeable impact on GPS performance. But buildings and trees do. So take the GPS outside where you have the biggest sky view as you can.
  • Next, wait for the GPS to acquire a signal. If this is the first time you have used it, expect it to take up to 20 minutes to find a signal. Most often it will take less, but prepare for 20 minute. Now for an important step… Once it has found your location, let it continue to sit there for about 30 minutes.

While the GPS is turned on with a signal, it is downloading “almanac” data from the satellites. This information will help it find the satellites much, much faster in the future because it will be better able to predict where to listen for the satellites.

It is important that while the GPS is acquiring a signal that you not move the GPS. A few feet is fine, however if you start driving with the GPS before it has locked into a signal, it will take much, much longer to acquire a signal, if it finds one at all.

Other Signal Impacts

Rural areas don’t make a difference like they do with devices that rely on terrestrial signals like mobile phones. The GPS system was designed to work nearly any place on Earth. In fact, urban areas with tall buildings nearby are the toughest challenges for GPS systems.

GPS manufacturers are constantly working on ways to improve their products, and acquiring GPS reception is no exception. So check if there are any software updates available for your GPS. Some GPS manufacturers like TomTom also offer updates on a periodic basis that help it with that “almanac” data. TomTom calls this “QuickFix” updates and you can download them to your GPS to help it find a signal faster.

Some types of windshields (specifically athermic windshields) don’t allow the GPS signal to pass through as easily. In this case, an external antenna can help if one is available for your GPS. If you live in urban area with lots of tall buildings, an external antenna can help in that situation as well.

Taking a trip?

Note that if you move the GPS a good distance from where it was last used (say more than 100 miles) it will take longer time to initially acquire a signal. If you fly somewhere for vacation and take your GPS with you in the rental car be ready for a double whammy. Not only will it take longer to acquire a signal because the GPS has moved a large distance since it was last turned on, but you will often start at the airport in a parking garage where you don’t have an unobstructed sky view to listen in to the GPS signal.

And if you are going on a trip you might want to check out our tips on traveling through airports with GPS where we discuss x-ray machines and other transportation tips.

75 Responses

  1. Have you heard about SiRFInstantFixII?
    Will this not give Garmin 700 series a serious lift against Tomtom?
    I have read the Garmin 760 review and people have complained about this quite a lot.

    Deepak Chawla - January 23rd, 2008
  2. Yes, however we haven’t seen any indication that Garmin is, or will, use that feature.

    Tim - January 23rd, 2008
  3. Could I not apply this myself?
    Or any other fix that comes along with most of the shopping for gadgets now done online, you would won’t have a dealer to take it back too to upgrade?

    Deepak Chawla - January 29th, 2008
  4. No, you wouldn’t be able to apply it yourself.

    Tim - January 29th, 2008
  5. I think I got it right
    Is your blog for the same.

    Deepak Chawla - February 7th, 2008
  6. Tim,

    What is the difference between external Bluetooth GPS vs regular GPS navigator in term of protocol? The reason I asked, because I have HP PocketPC with TomTom Bluetooth GPS (loaded with TomTom Navigator 6 software); somehow when it acquiring satellite signal, it’s faster than my friend’s Garmin, Mio & Magellan GPS (yes, he have three GPSs). Beside that, my Bluetooth GPS has better satellite signals than my friend’s GPS navigators. Friend’s GPS keep re-position itself or tries to acquiring satellite for every 5 seconds when came to mountainous terrain. This hesitate me buying new TomTom Go 730.


    George - June 16th, 2008
  7. There really isn’t any difference in protocol– they both communicate with satellites in the same manner. I’ve got four or five Bluetooth GPS devices and none of them seem to have any significant difference over the PNDs I have when it comes to acquisition time or reception.

    A Bluetooth device generally will have a little more design freedom though– since they are not quite as worried about size/shape, or screen placement– therefore I suppose it is possible they could overall have better reception.

    Tim - June 16th, 2008
  8. Beside the size & shape limitation, Bluetooth GPS device does have advantage of location. It can be place outside of vehicle for better reception. My TomTom Bluetooth GPS is weather resistance, so I have no worry.

    Tim, thanks for the info. I just ordered TomTom Go 730 online. Quick question… can my TomTom Bluetooth GPS be use with TT Go 730 with its Bluetooth capability? This will allow better reception if been place outside of the vehicle like an external antenna.


    George - June 17th, 2008
  9. No, the 730 (as with most PNDs) can only use their internal chip. You can install an external antenna however if you find you need better reception.

    Tim - June 17th, 2008
  10. Got you. Thanks Tim.

    George - June 17th, 2008
  11. Hi
    We purchased our NUVI 350 1 1/2-year a go and I don’t have any problem on it. But last couple of months it’s always stock up for 30 minutes and always in Poor satellite and low satellite reception. I did follow the instruction to reset but it doesn’t help. Warranty is already over (1 year???) Please help. THANKS,

    Jed - July 21st, 2008
    • I had the same problem on my Garmin NUVI 350. Mine is 2 years old, and now it’s hard to get any satellite reception on this unit, in the same areas it got good reception when new. It’s basiscally worthless now, since the reception is so poor.

      Mike - March 15th, 2010
  12. If you’ve followed those steps and reset the device I’m not sure what else you could do other than contact Garmin for repair.

    Tim - July 21st, 2008
  13. Tim,
    In this article on Aquiring Satellites, you said for the “first time” start up, to let it set for 20 minutes. Does updating software later have any affect on the almanac data. I guess I’m asking if this should be done after updating and at the same location.

    Dave - September 10th, 2008
  14. Good question, Dave. It depends on the device. Some will wipe out the almanac data on firmware updates, while others leave it intact. If you run an update and it connects just as fast as it did before, chances are you’ve still got the ephemeris (almanac) data. If it takes longer than normal to connect, then it probably did clear the ephemeris data in which case it might be best to leave it put for a bit to download the new data.

    Tim - September 10th, 2008
  15. Thanks
    I read it. It takes too long to adquire satellites

    carmen - October 11th, 2008
  16. I bought a TomTom 130 and used if for 10 days then it suddenly could not find a GPS signal. I returned it to the store and got another. This one has worked fine for about 20 days and now it can’t find a GPS signal. Is this a common problem with the Tom Tom 130? How can I fix it?

    Pam - November 10th, 2008
  17. Pam, no, it isn’t a common problem. Are you downloading the TomTom QuickFix data? Delete the ‘ephem’ folder from your TomTom, then follow the tips in this article for new GPS devices.

    Tim - November 10th, 2008
  18. Hi Pam,

    I am having the same issue with my Navman S35. I bought it 7 days ago, and started this rubbish today. I was at the same location for well over an hour with the unit switched on, and it still couldn’t locate a damn satellite. Well, it finds them after you do a full reset, and gives you your location for about 20 seconds, then all the green bars disappear. I’m going to be returning this tomorrow.

    Troy - December 30th, 2008
    • Troy, that type of issue sounds like a defective device and doesn’t sound like normal operation at all.

      Tim - December 30th, 2008
    • Hi Pam, did you resolve your issue, i am experiencing exactly the same thing on my new navman S150. Can’t acquire any satellites unless i reboot the thing, then i finds satellites for 15 seconds and looses them

      Gary - June 19th, 2009
  19. Hi Tim,
    finding it very hard to get manual on line for our navman S35, have you any idea’s. Also we are travelling to new zealand shortly, will our navman pick up sinal out of oz??? thanks

    sally - March 28th, 2009
  20. I have a nuvi 350 and am having trouble acquiring and keeping satellites. I will be driving and lose the signal and within 10 seconds it will come back. Sometimes it will be miles before it comes back. This is while driving state expressways with nothing within miles higher than a farm silo. Sometimes it takes 20-30 minutes when first starting out to get the satellites, but if i try out in my house it takes 1-2 minutes. Can the problem be with my car’s dash? I have a toyota camry and use on dash w/o the holder but use a pillow of corn to hold. Kept falling off dash so now i use this method. This is my second unit, my last one was sent back because it could not get satellites at all and this one worked for a while and started doing same thing.
    Hope you can help.

    ron tallo - May 27th, 2009
    • Ron, some of the Nuvi 300 series devices are starting to develop aging issues where the antenna cable that runs through the hinge is breaking– that is a possibility. Otherwise, make sure when you flip up the antenna that you don’t flip it “all of the way” up– just leave the square antenna so that it is horizontal with the ground for the best reception.

      Tim - June 1st, 2009
    • I have the same problem with nuvi 255w and Camry 2007, if you take it off the dash (ej. rear seats) it works well…I’m guessing if bluetooth is conflicting and looking for taking it off in the camry but could’nt do it…

      Sergio (mexico) - June 6th, 2009
      • Huh? the 255W doesn’t have bluetooth…?

        Joe - January 6th, 2010
    • I fly and drive with quite a few different GPS units. Some are mobile, many are “built in”. A few years ago, I noted that, as I tried to depart some airports a few of the GPS units would Lose Lock “they were working on the flight in and now they just lost all signal”. After seeing this happen from time to time I noted that it happened only at some airports with some aircraft with some GPS?. I tracked the problem down to the other radios in the aircraft. When the radio was tuned to receive on ground frequencies. In this case the ground frequencies at some airports (always AM 121.xx caused the radios in some aircraft to create a 3rd Inter-modulation frequency that swamped the “computer” in the GPS. If I used the secondary radio or changed the frequency or moved the GPS antenna to a different location the GPS would work fine. I pointed this out to several friends and we all found some interference level on some frequencies if the GPS receiving antenna was close enough to the radio bodies. So try your GPS out of the CAR and away from the AM / FM radio or the car’s other computer / electronics in the dash.


      Steve - October 25th, 2009
  21. I’ve been searching for a while and this is the closest post/thread/article I could find regarding my question (you guys do a great job clarifying things =p).

    While my unit (60Cx) was acquiring satellites for the first time, I moved it in-and-out of the house a couple of times, and it was left indoors for the most of the time.

    Is that going to affect the “calibration sequence” of my GPS , or its “accuracy” in the future?

    Thanks in advance.

    Mac - June 13th, 2009
    • Mac, no– that won’t impact your device at all, it will be just fine.

      Tim - June 15th, 2009
  22. I just purchased a Nuvi 750 and was talked into buying an ac charger. I have owned a Streetpilot 340 for 4 years and have always just used the car power cord to run the unit. The batteries in the streetpilot died 2 years ago. Is it better to run the unit on it’s battery or is just using the power cord ok?

    Brian - June 18th, 2009
  23. i lost sat signal and never got it back even leaving it on and resteing it what do i so

    tom - June 19th, 2009
    • Tom, you should call the support department of the manufacturer.

      Tim - June 19th, 2009
  24. i wrote before about loosing satellite connection and have found out later if i try using it before i get into car to go it will work. just several times i lost connection and it came right back. also i just had antenna 1/2 way up or out and doing both things the problem has stopped. don’t know which way was problem but it is all but solved. thanx for all the help.
    thanx again.

    ron - June 19th, 2009
  25. Help! I need a basic unit for a trip to Ireland, and England. I can get a garmin 205 or 750 for good prices, but the reviews I’ve read (CNET + bloggers) occasionally say that the 750 is sluggish to mention turns or acquire satellites. Any suggestions-which one to buy? I will likely not use it much once I return to the US but will use it every minute and hold onto it like a bible when I’m driving on the left and listening to my “navigator” in the seat next to me telling me where to go… Do you have any experience with either of the units for speed and reliability issues? Don’t think I care about features too much, just something that’s reliable and won’t miss a turn! Thanks for any suggestions.

    Gary - July 23rd, 2009
  26. Not sure if anyone can help,but here we go. Im am having an issue with loosing gps. Reception within one foot of my car(2001 Toyota celica).I. have ran. 3 different gps programs and all lock into 8 + satellites down to a 13.5ft accuracy. The mintute I approch my car(only my car) all satellites and signal is gone,no matter if I drive 5 miles or 400 (to Florida ) nothing. I take the same device and program (mytouch 3g with telenav, Google maps and a gps scan tool) and works flawlessly in everyother vehicle but mine.even my Tom. Tom so…….3 phones,3 different Apps and now my Tom Tom, all lose sight of ups satellites soon approach to my car and while inside. Will only reconnect when Im at least 1-3 feet away. Telenav, mytouch,tmobil and htc say they have never heard of such. Help! My car has no aftermarket and is completely stock. No alarm,and I now even removed All stereo equipment, to try and eliminate possibilities. My car does have a Toyota vvti engine and electronic 4 speed automatic transmission…..could it be? Im so at a loss. Thanks,ray

    ray - November 21st, 2009
    • I have a 2008 Toyota Highlander with the antenna built into the windows in numerous locations. I wonder if this antenna throughout the vehicle is interferring with my Garmin 350 from getting a satellite feed? I can’t get a signal now with this vehicle, whereas this same Garmin 350 had no problem in my 1996 Buick Riviera.

      Mike - March 15th, 2010
  27. Recently bought a TomTom XL Classic, I have found it will not work in my Ford Kuga due to the Athermic / Heat resistant glass, there is no external aerial socket on the XL classic so i am stuck. I contacted TomTom ‘support’ who informed me they take no responsibility for the vehicle it goes into. Buyer beware!

    John - December 16th, 2009
  28. Hi Tim,
    I have a Nuvi 255, which Works great in the US, but I also travel a lot to Argentina, where it some times take ages ( like 40 min) to acquire the signal, once and again in the same trip. Could that be related to the “almanac data”. Is it pre-loaded in the GPS for other countries?
    Thanks, Dario

    Dario - January 10th, 2010
  29. HI Tim
    Is there a difference when purchasing a Garmin that maps include US and one that includes US, Hawaii, etc. Although Hawaii is the 50th state, many people do not consider Hawaii, the US. The Garmin I purchased includes maps of the US, but I saw another Garmin that states “maps include US, Hawaii, PR, Canada”. Living in Hawaii, should I buy the one with Hawaii stated rather than just US?


    Ed - March 26th, 2010
    • Descriptions vary so you will need to list which device(s) you are looking at.

      Tim - March 26th, 2010
      • HI Tim
        I have the Garmin 780 which includes US only. Costco has a Garmin 265W? which includes US, Hawaii, PR and Canada.

        Both offer text to speech, don’t need MSN, doesn’t do well in Hawaii and obsolete in Jan2012, don’t need bluetooth. Most street names in Hawaii are pronounced incorrectly.

        So do I want the US only or US and includes Hawaii?

        Ed - March 26th, 2010
        • The 780 and the 265W both contain the same maps which cover all of the USA and Canada.

          Tim - March 26th, 2010
          • HI Tim
            Thanks for your prompt and effiecient response.

            Much appreciated.

            Ed - March 27th, 2010
  30. My Garmin 350 shows my last location map and will not acquire satellites to show my present location. The scale which shows the signal strength has no green bars lit. Should I toss this thing, or is there a repair worth the money?

    Thanks in advance,

    David - April 25th, 2010
  31. My Garmin 350 Nuvi GPS cannot acquire satellites. I have had it two years. Tried everything you suggested but downloading new information to it. Where is this download and how to do it? Cables etc??? thank you for any help you can give me, Sarah

    Sarah S King - April 28th, 2010
    • Sarah, you can download new software from my.garmin.com or garmin.com/webupdater. However the Nuvi 350 also has a known issue that develops with time where the cable that routes through the “hinge” of the antenna can separate. So it could be a hardware problem in which case replacing the GPS might be your only option. (But certainly try a software update first.)

      Tim - April 28th, 2010
  32. do I always have to pay 100.00 for updates for my magellan 4040 / I’ve done it once in 3 years and it didn’t seem to make a difference. Love the unit. thanks

    Ruby - May 4th, 2010
    • You don’t have to purchase any map updates if you don’t want to. A map update won’t impact satellite acquisition speed.

      Tim - May 4th, 2010
      • Thank you, I wanted the updates for rest.poi etc.Is there another way of getting them ?

        Ruby - May 4th, 2010
        • No– Mio maps need to come from Mio.

          Tim - May 4th, 2010
  33. Hi, I bought my dad a tomtom go 700 in NZ. He’s just arrived in the UK and can see the UK map but it is not connecting to the satellite. He’s already tried leaving it outside for some time (not exactly sure how long). And other advice or should he just keep trying and leave it outside for a long period?
    thanks in advance for any advice.

    Kim - May 15th, 2010
  34. Have a Garmin 265W which works great – most of the time. Recent trip from Chicago to the east coast, I lost satellite signal on two occasions: once on the north side of DC (driving through Rock Creek Park – I’m assuming it was due to tree cover, but it took forever (about 20 minutes) before reacquisition). The second instance was on the south side of Chicago, just west of Gary – no trees or other obstructions – just open fields. Again, about a 20-minute signal loss. Just wondering if there are coverage “holes” or other explanation for such signal loss.

    Robert - May 17th, 2010
    • The GPS signal covers the world nearly equally– you’ve either got a software/hardware issue or just need to sit and wait it out a bit. There are no “holes” in coverage area.

      Tim - May 17th, 2010
      • Tim,

        Thanks for the response. Just seems weird that it worked fine for most of the 2000 mile round trip, and only lost it on these two occasions – the 2nd being the one with no “excuse.”

        Robert - May 17th, 2010
  35. I have had a Tom Tom XL 340S for a year and I LOVE it. I recently bought a 2008 BMW 7Series and now the Tom Tom can’t get or keep a signal. The car has built in NAV which DOES get and keep a signal but I prefer to use my Tom Tom. Any suggestions to what is causing my SAT signal issue? My sister has a MBenz, she has no onboard NAV, and she is having the same problem. We live 30miles apart.

    D - August 16th, 2010
  36. Interestingly enuff, I just bought a new Subaru Outback. Now have a 2010 and a 2011 Outback – the 2011 has XM Satellite radio receiver (the 2010 does not). Placing my Garmin 265W in center above radio in the new (XM) vehicle – no signal. No problem in the non-XM vehicle (placing the unit in the same location). Have had to move the placement of the unit to the left side of the dash (still using the windshield mount) – in order to receive satellite signals – with NO problem. This indicates to me there is a major “shielding” problem created by the XM antenna wiring (or maybe some sort of interference).

    Any knowledgeable (or even similar) comments out there?

    Robert - October 15th, 2010
    • I am delighted to find / see this post! I have a 2006 Chevy Tahoe with XM radio and Onstar (both factory installed). I just purchased a TomTom XXL 540 TM and cannot get a gps signal. Just as of today, I discovered that when my vehicle and radio are all off, the signal comes through just fine! I wasn’t sure if it was the XM radio or the OnStar (which is not activated) that were causing the problem. I will try relocating my mount to the left and see if that fixes the problem. I was informed by TomTom last evening that they are not aware of any problems with either OnStar or XM, and that an external antenna is no longer sold for a unit such as mine. If anyone else has any further help, I would greatly appreciate it!

      Tanya - January 14th, 2011
      • Just a quick update on my original comment – no problem acquiring satellites/reception as long as I continue to have my Garmin mounted on the left side. Definitely an XM interference or shielding problem if it’s mounted in the center.

        Robert - January 14th, 2011
  37. thank you for all the info… these things are exactly what happens to my tom-tom.. great explaination.. The light bulb is now on above my head…

    john daly - December 14th, 2010
  38. I have an 08 Toyota Prius, the built in nav system NEVER spends more than a few minutes, maximum, acquiring a signal. Most of the time it just works right away. Now I am looking at other cars and considering one without a built in nav system and putting a PND on the dash. But from what I am reading here, you cannot buy a PND that will latch onto a satellite as well as the built in nav in a car. Is this true? It seems crazy to spend 1000’s of dollars on a car with built in GPS’s that are inferior, feature-wise to a PND. But its worth it to me to not have to sit around waiting for a signal. Any thoughts on this? Thanks.

    charles - January 12th, 2011
    • No, I’d say that isn’t true. Most every PND will lock onto satellites within a couple of seconds– if you have to wait at all.

      Tim - January 12th, 2011
      • Thank you for the fast reply. Is there any particular device that you could recommend that is known to be particularly good about connecting rapidly and has a good track record of staying that way? Thanks again.

        charles - January 12th, 2011
        • Anything new today will get a signal very fast– very few complaints about this from any of the new devices on the market today.

          Tim - January 13th, 2011
  39. I bought a Magellan (i believe it is the 4050?) or something close to that. Anyway, I can not get a GPS signal on it and if I do it keeps going to the “turn list” option. This happens with or without the signal. I am very frustrated because this is the first one I have bought and I am having issues with it. Can anyone give me suggestions as to what I am to do. It worked the first 5 times or so and now nothing.

    Kathy - February 27th, 2011
    • Kathy,

      Finally I found someone with the exact problem as me. Did you ever figure it out? I’m so frustrated that we spent the money on this and now it just sits because it’s useless. Let me know if you fixed it and how.

      Amanda - October 27th, 2011
  40. Can’t find a GPS system that will work consistently in my Toyota Highlander 2008. Husband thinks it has something to do with the fact that it came with the option and wiring to have a built in gps. I have read everything about positioning the device etc. Nothing has worked. Can you tell me what GPS I can buy that has an external port and whatever else I need to get the signal from outside the car?

    Dianne Corley - July 29th, 2011
  41. I have a 7series BMW and I have the same problem. I have a TomTom and it is so much better than the onboard BMW Navigation, I prefer to use the TomTom but it is very difficult to get a signal. I spoke with BMW and they say it is not the portable GPS thats the problem, the car is hard wired for satelite and this signal is blocking the portable GPS signal- so it doesnt work. They told me how to turn off the hard wired line in the car so the portable GPS works. I have not tried it- but it does make sense.

    Diana - July 29th, 2011
    • For what it’s worth, that doesn’t make sense to me. GPS works almost exactly like an FM radio. It only receives signals, and the signals it receives are just on a bit of a different frequency than FM radio. If you put one FM radio next to another and turn them both on, one doesn’t “block” the reception of another. Remember GPS is a receiver only– there is no transmission.

      What makes much more sense is that your vehicle might have an athermic windshield. See our discussion about GPS Not working in certain vehicles. If you have a heated windshield or a windshield otherwise coated with metals (more and more common) then that can block the GPS signal from reaching inside your vehicle. That’s why many aftermarket GPS systems come with external antennas so that it captures the signal on the other side of the windshield and sends it into your GPS.

      I’ve certainly seen this with more recent Toyota vehicles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it in higher end vehicles like BMWs. But for what it is worth I would recommend not starting by disabling the factory GPS as I don’t think that will have any impact.

      Tim - July 29th, 2011
      • See my prior comments at #36 above – both vehicles have the same windshield/coatings – only difference is in the wiring for the XM radio – which I believe is shielding satellite reception. (and you’re right, on or off doesn’t matter – it’s the mere presence of the wiring acting as a shield preventing reception).

        Robb - July 29th, 2011
  42. Now that makes complete sense and yes I do have a athermic windshield , where can I get an external antenna- TomTom’s website ?

    BTW- I didnt disconnect the onboad Nav. It works ok and its all I have right now.

    Diana - July 29th, 2011
    • I imagine TomTom still has them available… just make sure whatever GPS model you have actually has an external antenna port on it… many don’t, unfortunately.

      Tim - July 29th, 2011
  43. I did a quick search on “gps external antenna” and ran across this one: http://www.gilsson.com/external_gps_antenna_comparison.htm
    note the links at the bottom for specific brands – lists models with external antenna jack.

    Robb - July 29th, 2011
  44. Why do if have only lines and dots on my Garmin. It says o press the dots. When I press them they show up somewhere else onthe face of the Garmin.

    Joyce Campbell - September 6th, 2011
    • It’s the calibration software for the touchscreen. Just keep touching the dots until the calibration routine finishes (haven’t counted, but it seemed like 15 or 20 does the trick – your mileage may vary).

      Robb - October 29th, 2011
  45. Great advice about waiting 20 minutes to get a signal. I reset my TomTom and it took around the 20 minutes to get a signal. I left it out in the garden for a further 30mins after that. Thanks again.

    Robert - January 14th, 2012

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