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Timing is Everything: To Protect Geospatial and the World, We Need Bullet-proof Time

A resilient national timing architecture will do more than just making today’s GNSS systems more secure. Ensuring resilient, bullet-proof timing services will provide a solid foundation for a wide variety of infrastructure upon which technologists and engineers from many disciplines can build for the future.

By Dana Goward

In 2012 a Boston Consulting Group Report estimated that geospatial services drove $1.6 trillion (that’s trillion with a “t”) in revenues and resulted in another $1.4 trillion in cost savings each year throughout the United States economy. It is hard for most people to conceive of numbers that big.

Imagine the impact of geospatial today, eight years later. Or instead of just the United States, its value to the world! It is probably more accurate to say that the world really can’t live without geospatial. At least not anywhere near the way we live now.

And yet, geospatial services rely almost entirely on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), and most heavily on the US Global Positioning System (GPS). These satellite systems provide services known as positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT). Of the three, timing is the most important.

All GNSS satellites, and most all terrestrial wide-area PNT transmitters, are just highly precise clocks transmitting a time signal. Receivers detect time signals from multiple transmitters, measure the differences, and calculate their location. Very hard to do by hand, but quick and easy with the right math and computer chips.

These time signals support geospatial services and also serve many other critical technology roles. They synchronize networks, time stamp transactions, enable multiplexing of spectrum that was formerly only single use, enable digital broadcast… the list goes on and on.

In a two year limited sampling, the European Union’s Strike3 project found about 500,000 instances of radio frequency interference on GNSS bands, but only about 10% were evaluated as deliberate disruptions.

Need for a resilient national timing architecture

Tens of thousands of businesses and millions of applications have been built around GPS/GNSS-based PNT services. Yet these signals from space are very faint and easy to block (jamming) or replace with false, misleading signals (spoofing). And they can be disrupted for extended periods by solar flares. Accidental interference from electronics of all kinds is a regular problem for individual users. In a two year limited sampling, the European Union’s Strike3 project found about 500,000 instances of radio frequency interference on GNSS bands, but only about 10% were evaluated as deliberate disruptions.

For these and many other reasons, in 2004 US President George W. Bush mandated a backup capability in the US to support national and economic security when GPS wasn’t available. While that capability has yet to be implemented for several reasons too complicated to go into here, it can still be done relatively inexpensively and quickly.

A white paper I authored on with two widely renown PNT and networking experts, which was recently released by the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, describes threats to timing in the US and how they can be remedied. It also discusses how to resolve many of the leadership, adoption and other policy issues that are key to making the nation safer and more secure. The paper describes an architecture that provides all users two, and most users three, independent paths to access precise Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). These three methods are via GNSS, a wireless terrestrial system called eLoran (variants of which can be found in much of the rest of the world), and by fiber networks.

Users who access two or three of these pathways simultaneously to get time will be virtually bullet-proof to overall service disruptions.

Courtesy: A Resilient National Timing Architecture (The White Paper)

But the Resilient National Timing Architecture will do more than just making today’s systems more secure. Ensuring resilient, bullet-proof timing services will provide a solid foundation for a wide variety of infrastructure upon which technologists and engineers from many disciplines can build for the future.

For example, 5G telecommunications networks need timing for several uses including synchronization and efficient use of spectrum. The paper’s Resilient National Timing Architecture will ensure 5G systems have rock solid timing which can make 5G buildouts and operation easier and less expensive. Looking forward, this could also allow 5G to be the basis for the highly precise location and navigation services desperately needed for self-driving cars, drones, and other unmanned systems.

In short, the Resilient National Timing Architecture will be infrastructure supporting other infrastructure. Like the buried foundation of a skyscraper. Not easily visible to the public, but absolutely essential to prevent everything above it from tumbling down.

Author Bio

Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing foundation and has been a member of the President’s National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board since 2015. He is retired from the US federal Senior Executive Service having served as the nation’s maritime navigation authority.

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