GPS Use for Computer Timing Applications

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is now a very familiar tool in helping motorists to navigate but GPS has more uses than merely triangulating a position for direction finding, it can also be utilized to provide time and frequency information worldwide.

Developed by the United States military, GPS incorporates at least 24 communication satellites in high orbit, all of which contain precise timing equipment to enable the satellite to triangulate positions accurately.

However, each satellite’s highly accurate atomic clock timing reference can also be used by NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers to synchronise computer networks using the highly accurate GPS time as an external reference. 

GPS is an ideal time and frequency source because it can provide highly accurate time anywhere in the world using relatively cheap components. Each GPS satellite transmits in two frequencies L2 for the military use and L1 for use by civilians transmitted at 1575 MHz, Low-cost GPS antennas and receivers are now widely available.

The radio signal transmitted by the satellite can pass through windows but can be blocked by buildings so the ideal location for a GPS antenna is on a rooftop with a good view of the sky. The more satellites it can receive from the better the signal. However, roof-mounted antennas can be prone to lighting strikes or other voltage surges so a suppressor is highly recommend to be installed inline on the GPS cable.

The cable between the GPS antenna and receiver is also critical. The maximum distance that a cable can run is normally only 20-30 metres but a high quality coax cable combined with a GPS amplifier placed in-line to boost the gain of the antenna can allow in excess of 100 metre cable runs.

A GPS receiver then decodes the GPS signal sent from the antenna to a computer readable protocol which can be utilised by most time servers and operating systems including, Windows, LINUX and UNIX. 

The GPS receiver also outputs a precise pulse every second that GPS Network Time Protocol (NTP) servers and computer time servers may utilise to provide ultra-precise timing. The pulse-per-second timing on most receivers is accurate to within 0.001 of a second of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time or Temps Universel Coordonné)

GPS is ideal in providing NTP time servers or stand-alone computers with a highly accurate external reference for synchronisation. Even with relatively low cost equipment, accuracy of hundred nanoseconds (a nanosecond = a billionth of a second) can be reasonably achieved using GPS as an external reference.