Blog Editor’s Note: The author of the below article is president of the RNT Foundation.
The Empire State Building sits atop a massive and solid foundation that hardly anyone ever sees. Above ground it has 2.8 million square feet of offices and hundreds of businesses. It houses 15,000 workers. Yet it would all come crashing down if the underlying and unseen foundation weren’t incredibly strong and dependable.
Timing is the unseen foundation of every networked technology, digital broadcast, financial transaction, electrical grid management and of most navigation systems, just to name a few applications. Yet, as GPS World readers know, signals from our dominant source of timing — GPS — are very faint and easily disrupted.
Short term, localized disruptions happen all the time, and many systems have adapted. A delivery driver using a jammer to hide from his boss is unlikely to disrupt a cell base station as he passes by, for example.
But more serious threats are out there. More and more hobbyists are finding ways to spoof receivers. Every few decades the sun flares strongly enough to fry satellites or charge the ionosphere. And because there are so few alternatives, GPS and other GNSS have become huge, tempting targets for adversary nations, terrorists, and sophisticated hackers.
Instead of Manhattan bedrock, our timing foundation is sometimes more like shifting sands.
Systems engineering tells us that, if something is essential, there ought to be two, three or more independent ways of receiving it. Most aircraft, for example, have two or three systems powering the flight controls — because controlled flight is important!
The white paper “A Resilient National Timing Architecture” outlines how the United States can leverage existing infrastructure and provide all citizens two, and many of them three, independent paths to coordinated universal time (UTC).
It proposes a national timing back- bone of mature technologies with very different failure modes — GNSS, eLoran and fiber. This combination will provide rock-solid timing at the 500 ns or better level of accuracy relative to UTC everywhere across the nation, and at 100 ns or better in major metro areas. Users accessing two or more systems would be nearly bulletproof to timing service disruptions.
The National Timing Resilience and Security Act of 2018 mandated a terrestrial system to back up GPS timing. Our white paper provides a path forward.
Complying with the law while benefiting current and future technologies should be sufficient motivation. If it isn’t, we must also realize that not acting on this will continue to place us behind other nations such as the United Kingdom, South Korea, Russia and China — all of whom are actively reinforcing their national timing systems.
The task will not be a simple one. Yet America was able to overcome the expense and difficulties of building GPS, at the time the world’s most refined and complex technology, and put it in space. By comparison, establishing a resilient national timing architecture using existing technology in our homeland would be child’s play.
Timing is essential. It is infrastructure for our infrastructure. If our national timing is weak, so is everything that is built upon it.
We will profit from ensuring our timing is as strong, resilient, and easily accessed as possible.
And we will suffer if it is neglected.