Feb 4, 2016
By Chris Baraniuk, Technology reporter, BBC.com
Several companies were hit by hours of system warnings after GPS satellites broadcast the wrong time, according to time-monitoring company Chronos.
The company observed problems last week, after noticing some GPS time signals were 13 microseconds out.
Such a discrepancy is considered sever, and several Chronos telecoms clients faced “12 hours” of system errors.
Previously, the GPS errors had also been blamed for disturbances with BBC radio broadcasts.
According to the US Air Force, which manages the GPS satellite network, problems began when a satellite named SVN 23 was decommissioned.
“Our support manager was rung at [02:00],” said Chronos chief executive Prof Charles Curry.
“He was called from his bed by a network operations centre.”
“What we saw was about 12 hours of problems,” he told the BBC.
Prof Curry said telecoms companies relied on the accuracy of time measurements to control the flow of data through their networks.
The bits and bytes of a telephone call, for example, might be synchronised based on the time as reported by GPS satellite signals.
That signal was constantly monitored for accuracy.
And when the 13 microsecond error had been detected, it resulted in thousands of system warnings being activated at some companies.
“The alarms were escalating,” said Prof Curry.
“One particular network we have, which is a global network, [was] seeing alarms from all over the place, all over the world.”
Prof Curry said he was not aware of any consequences of these problems that would have been apparent to the public – probably thanks to back-up time systems.
And this kind of issue was extremely rare.
“Last week was an example of something going wrong in a fairly major way,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s gone quite that badly wrong since 1 January 2004, when the same satellite vehicle number [SVN], 23, decided to become unhappy.”
The Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNTFnd) – which advocates the development of dependable timing systems – also had “minor reports” from the telecoms and energy sectors as a result of the GPS issue.
Dana Goward, the foundation’s president, said, “It [had] a very broad and – very fortunately – minor impact on many infrastructure sectors.”
During the decommissioning of SVN 23, an issue in the “Global Positioning System ground software” had been detected, the USAF said.
But full details of what went wrong, and why more than one satellite became affected, remain unclear.
This week, Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado published a press release unrelated to the incident, praising the “perfect signal” provided by GPS and pointing out how useful GPS was for military operations.
Lt Col Matthew Brandt said: “Somebody somewhere is using that signal to put a bomb on a target and kill a bad guy.
“Somebody is using GPS to pull an extraction or using it to call in an air strike.”