Modern miracle brings timing to the ‘Information Superhighway’

September 21, 2020  - By
Photo: Orolia

John Fischer, vice president, advanced R&D, Orolia

In 1990, I had just left the military electronics industry (radars, electronic warfare) and entered the growing wireless telecom industry. Recall, this was at the end of the Cold War with shrinking U.S. defense budgets. Alas, after eagerly waiting for the full operational performance of GPS throughout the 1980s, I unfortunately missed its early successes.

I spent the 1990s in startups, working to provide wireless alternatives to dial-up and leased lines. We founded Clearwire, which eventually became WiMax — the broadband wireless on-ramp to this new “information superhighway” we now call the internet.

However, within a few years, we started to look for a way to synchronize our adjacent basestations to avoid interference at overlapping regions. Those of us who came from the military navigation sector turned to GPS. We began to use a GPS receiver to give us a 1PPS sync.

This worked well, although we had to train our installers not to put the GPS antenna high up on the tower with all the others, but low, away from the transmission beams. It was hard for them to believe we got better reception on the ground than up high!

The Trimble Accutime 2000. (Photo: Trimble)

The Trimble Accutime 2000. (Photo: Trimble)

By the late 1990s, Trimble had introduced its Accutime 2000, which made our lives easier. (Everything futurist in those days was called Something-2000 — the new millennium was approaching). Today, it is the standard for time sync, but back then, it was novel.

When I think of the progress in terms of Moore’s Law (semiconductor performance doubles every 18 months), we have been through 20 doublings since 1990. That is an improvement factor of a million!

However, technological advancement alone does not account for GPS’ huge success. The fact that the U.S. military opened its system for use by everyone in the world, and the continued cooperation of all nations in making all GNSS systems interoperable, is mind blowing.

We are living in the world that John Lennon only “Imagine(d)”: all the people sharing. In 2020, we are now focused on GNSS vulnerabilities and protecting the integrity of GNSS signals, which are such an integral part of our daily lives. GPS is truly a modern miracle.