The Privatization of Time

By David Mitlyng, MBA

A Modern Horror Story with A Timeless Ending?

Imagine you wake up one morning and your location apps are offline. 

Traffic is halted and planes are grounded worldwide.  

By evening, you lose cell service. A few hours later, your internet, which has been slow all day, blanks out.  

You wake up the next day and the power is out. Drive over to the next town, the same thing. ATMs and credit cards don’t work, gas stations and grocery stores are closed.  

The culprit …… GPS is down.  

Why? Who knows?  

Maybe the satellites were destroyed by Russian “kamikaze” satellites or Chinese “kidnapper” satellites. Or maybe they were blinded, jammed, or hacked. It may not even be intentional; maybe it was interference or an operator error, or even space junk. The US is unable to communicate to find out why. 

The Reality 

This is more than just a fictional story – it is a well-known within government agencies and private industry that our reliance on GPS is a major problem.  

It was even highlighted recently at Space Symposium by Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond“Over the last two years, China and Russia have continued to build an entire spectrum of threats, including “reversible jammers” and “ground-based laser systems capable of blinding or damaging satellites…China has a satellite with a robotic arm that is on-orbit today. This technology could be used in the future to grab other satellites. Both have ground-based missiles capable of destroying our satellites in orbit.” 

As one example of this, consider the events of January 26, 2016, when communications, emergency radios, and digital broadcasts around the world went offline. Even power grids started to malfunction and network engineers scrambled frantically to prevent a global communication meltdown

The culprit: a simple a 13-microsecond error in GPS clocks.  

Despite its name, GPS is not about maps; it’s about time. Over half of the $1.4T in economic benefits comes from its role as the world’s timekeeper.  

GPS is not nearly secure or accurate enough for modern networks, a problem that is going to get worseBecause of this there is a multi-billion dollar effort is underway to build a GPS replacement.  

The Importance of Timing for the World 

All of the world’s data run through very precisely aligned networks. Think of these data networks as analogous to a train network. Now consider what happens if the clocks at each of the train stations are only accurate to ten minutes. Conductors would be forced to maintain a ten-minute buffer – the train scheduled to depart at 8 am would be held up until the clock on the wall says 8:10 am. As a result, only six trains an hour could leave a platform (bandwidth is reduced) and ten minutes would stack up at each station down the line (latency increases).  

The same thing happens in a network: the efficient flow of data, like trains, requires very precise synchronization. But, as mentioned previously, GPS is not up to the task. Because of this, a $1.5B industry of timing solutions has emerged that attempts to provide network stability in times when GPS is offline.  

What will this timing solution do for us? 

Telcos that are moving to 5G standards need to implement new technologies that require precision timing between the backhaul network, base stations, and mobile handsets. Better precision timing potentially unlocks double the bandwidth and four times the users within an existing network.  Bandwidth is golden. Bandwidth=dollars gained. 

Precision timing is also valuable for Private Networks for Industry 4.0 facilities that utilize Time Sensitive Networks (TSN) for automated manufacturing. Increased, secure, reliable time=efficiency increase which=dollars gained.  

Timing is also critical for financial transactions, both for exchanges and the traders they serve. Exchanges require verifiable financial timestamps for transactions made by a global network of customers. Precision timing also helps reduce latency for high-frequency traders. Reliable, secure time=dollars gained. 

For defense and government agencies, secure and precise timing is necessary for secure communications, data fusion, deep space missions, power grids, and time difference of arrival (TDOA) for locating signals. Secure, reliable, time=effective, reliable, and safe networks. 

Who Owns Time? 

In spite of the critical role that timing plays in the modern world, it can be argued that nobody really owns time.  

GPS has become the de factor timekeeper for the world, but only because of circumstance. GPS was originally started as a DoD project in 1973 during the height of the Cold War and was only intended for use by the United States military. But it happened to come online right as the world’s networks were moving from analog to digital, and there was a need for a global timing reference to grease these new networks. 

Civilian use was allowed following an executive order from President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The military kept the best signals for internal use, which was made available for the general population by the Clinton Administration in 2000. 

Even now, there is a call to develop a next-generation GPS system for US, DoD use only.  

Government replacements for GPS has already begun by government agencies around the world, including Beidou in China, Galileo in Europe, GLONASS in Russia, NavIC in India, and Michibiki in Japan. 

And there is always a trend towards privatization within the United States – consider that the internet, computers, cell phones, all started as development US government projects.  

And this trend has accelerated within the space industry. Consider the privatization of launch vehicles, satellites, even lunar and Mars missions that were once the domain, of NASA alone.  

The time is right for a new global timing solution.  

GPS is not nearly secure or accurate enough for modern networks, a problem that is going to get worseBecause of this there is a multi-billion dollar effort is underway to build a GPS replacement. Who will own Time?