All of us think that timing is exact, that it will always be there on our smartphones or watches. But these devices are not foolproof. Electromagnetic storms, foreign interference with satellites, and spoofing and jamming can all disrupt the timing streams sent to our computers and other devices.
American Global Positioning System satellite navigation systems provide timing services, in addition to positioning information, through a constellation of satellites. The same GPS system that tells you where you are (using your car navigation system) also tells you the time. Just as interruptions to these satellite signals can affect how you perceive your location, they can also affect how your watch and smartphone tell you the time.
Russia and China have demonstrated that they can take down satellites, enabling them to meddle with Americans’ perception of location and time. In July sunspots caused unusually-strong solar flares, documented by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, with solar particles bombarding earth and interfering with the Earth’s magnetic field. Weather specialists such as Aerospace Corp engineer Dr. Tamitha Skov warned of potential interference with satellite signals.
Enter Hoptroff, a U.K. company founded by Richard Hoptroff in 2015. It provides timing services that do not rely on satellites to firms around the globe.
On a recent visit to London I met with Richard Hoptroff and the firm’s CEO, Tim Richards. Their vision: accurate time can be regarded as a utility, in the same way as electricity or telephone services are utilities. Just as households and firms contract out for these services, firms that need accurate time can lease timing services rather than purchasing the clocks and integrating them across their operations.
Atomic clocks are expensive and have a 5-to-7-year life, Richard Hoptroff told me. Firms in a broad array of industries are trying to provide their own timing services by purchasing atomic clocks and other devices. Sending time over distance is hard, and companies need multiple sets of atomic clocks plus networking equipment. By contracting out the purchase of time to a third party such as his firm, they could have more accurate timing at a lower cost.
Hoptroff produces accurate time using GPS signals from satellites combined with terrestrial signals from the National Metrology Institute in Sweden; the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado; and the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. Accuracy is ensured through three GNSS sources and one terrestrial source for every location.
Demand for Hoptroff’s services is particularly high for companies in financial services. For these firms, a fraction of a second difference in the timing of a trade can mean the difference between a gain or a loss. That’s why banks and trading firms have signed up with Hoptroff to provide services. But the need for accurate time goes far beyond financial services, and reaches to broadcast media, medicine, video gaming, and betting.
Broadcast Media. Major cable and television services operate globally. When a broadcaster is bringing in a visitor to report from Afghanistan, it’s essential that they both have the same time clock.
Video Gaming and Sports Betting. With people playing the same video game in locations from Asia to America, having the same time is essential. Tiny differences mean that shots do not hit their mark, or that scores are not accurately calculated. Sports betting relies on documented time and the value of bets changes as time progresses.
Medicine. Sophisticated surgeries rely on precise time, and hospitals need backup timing systems. For some patients, medication needs to be infused or otherwise delivered at a particular time to relieve pain or combat infection.
Electricity generation. With renewables getting increasingly integrated into the electricity grid, electric power plants rely on precise time to synchronize generators and to distribute energy to the grid. To prevent blackouts, electric utility operators use timing services for synchronizing their generators with the grid. Only with such synchronization can utilities incorporate power from wind, solar and traditional sources. Monitoring devices rely on timing signals to provide power to different places on the grid.
Companies use many services that are provided on subscription. It is extraordinarily costly for all firms in all essential industries to invest in their own atomic clocks. It would be more efficient for them to subscribe to a service that can provide accurate time for them, just as they subscribe to Internet, telephone, and electricity services.
Congress has requested in three different laws that the U.S. Department of Transportation provide a terrestrial backup for GPS so that timing services, as well as location, would not be subject to satellite disruptions. Until that happens, firms are on their own—and should be taking precautions.