It’s About Time – For a National Resilient Timing Architecture

For most of the nation, timing comes from a single source, the Global Positioning System. GPS satellites, as you know, are suites of atomic clocks connected to radios that transmit time signals. GPS signals and equipment can be easily interfered with and too often are. Frequently this is first detected by errors in GPS-time-based navigation applications.  Most interference is accidental, transient, and localized. But that doesn’t mean it is benign.

Delivery drivers can defeat fleet timing and tracking with a $30 device ordered off the internet. For just a few dollars more, criminals can get a device that will shift time and location to lure those drivers into areas where they can be easily hijacked. The government of Mexico says 85% of all cargo thefts involve a GPS disruption device of some kind.  These disruptions can also affect air travel. Most folks don’t even know they are vulnerable.

In 2011, Todd Humphreys showed how manipulating time in an exchange could enable someone to reverse the trade sequence, allowing them to sell something before they bought it, potentially reaping millions. Now, twelve years later, exchanges and the core financial industry have multiple resilient time sources and sufficient algorithmic protections to prevent that from happening. Yet 99% of retail financial service customers are outside the New York, Chicago, and San Francisco core financial enclaves. Most likely lack authenticated and resilient time. For them, over-dependency, complacency, and false trust are still real issues.

Resiliency and sync tend to be local (or relative) and costly. Synchronization has enabled innumerable applications and technologies over the last 30 years. How could we have cell phones without precise time sync?

Yet, in the absence of a sufficiently accurate, resilient, and widely distributed national time scale, that synchronization has tended to be intra-system, rather than to an external common standard. This adds a layer of complexity and difficulty when systems try to operate nationally and/or with each other.

It also inhibits innovation, makes those without great timing more vulnerable, and limits sales of some equipment and services to the few users and environments which already have authenticated, and resilient timing.  It also means sync is more costly and difficult for innovators and startup entrepreneurs.

Our technology needs to operate nationwide, operating efficiently, and avoid conflict. We need to synchronize operations across industries and the nation. To do this we need to democratize precise timing.  Easily accessed national timing at an acceptable level of precision is needed if America is going to foster innovation and keep finding efficiencies to improve the way we operate. It’s about time for a Resilient National Timing Architecture. We at the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNTF) have supported this for some time. We published a white paper on the topic in October 2020, and followed it up in 2021 with another on how government could lead establishment of the architecture easily and inexpensively.

While we urge government leadership, we don’t think the government should build anything. There are more than enough companies that can provide timing services more economically and efficiently than the government ever could.

The government should support the effort with commercial contracts and subscriptions. The RNTF’s proposed architecture provides multiple diverse methods of delivering time that could be accessed by as many Americans as possible. It includes fiber connections; suites of existing atomic clocks at USNO, NIST, national labs, and elsewhere; L-band signals from space; and terrestrial broadcast.

We weren’t the only ones who thought this. Three months after we published our paper, the Department of Transportation released its report on GPS Backup Technologies. They also said the nation needed L-Band from space, fiber, and terrestrial broadcast.  Also agreeing with us is a group of CEOs and senior executives from major telecom companies acting as the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC).

In their May 2021 report to President Biden, they discussed GPS vulnerabilities and threats, urged establishment of a national timing capability, and funding. They recommended a structure, and I quote:

“…similar to that reflected in the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation’s paper entitled “A Resilient National Timing Architecture.” Further, to enhance the ability of commercial entities to afford leveraging this architecture, the Administration should appropriate sufficient funds to lay the foundation for creating this timing architecture, with the Federal Government being the first customer for what will ultimately become a resilient, interconnected network for PNT delivery.”

Very few in government, notably in the Office of Management and Budget, assert that government involvement and leadership is not needed. A resilient national timing architecture will grow organically as a result of free market forces.

Among the most important reasons why this is wrong is that there are no commercial incentives to create this kind of fundamental tech infrastructure for broad adoption and use. As the NSTAC mentioned in its report, it is not possible to compete with free GPS. Even if it were, the kind of broad adoption needed to ensure innovation and national resilience would be stifled by charging fees for basic, utility-level timing. And even if such an architecture did arise organically as a result of market forces, would it really meet the nation’s needs?

Some form of government policy and financial leadership is needed to make a resilient national timing architecture happen. That was recognized by the capitalist CEOs that make up the NSTAC and has been reinforced by industry groups since then.

It’s about time for us to establish a resilient national timing architecture.

(Adapted from Goward’s presentation at ATIS’ Time and Money Workshop, held at the New York Stock Exchange, 17 January 2023)

Dana Goward - President, Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation
Dana Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is the proprietor at Maritime Governance LLC. In August 2013, he retired from the federal Senior Executive Service, having served as the maritime navigation authority for the United States. As director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he led 12 different navigation-related business lines budgeted at more than $1.3 billion per year. He has represented the U.S. at IMO, IALA, the UN anti-piracy working group and other international forums. A licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, he has also served as a navigator at sea and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.