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Time versus Time Synchronization

“They say “timing is everything” but nowadays it’s probably more correct to say “synchronization is everything”. There is a significant difference, yet many are surprised to learn they are not the same thing.

“Time-dependent” applications rely on their clocks being close to the “real-time”, as defined by a consensus of super-accurate atomic clocks managed by national bodies like the USNO. Once agreed upon by the labs, this “real-time” can be distributed to various “time-dependent” networks as a reference time to drive their operations.

“Time synchronized” applications, on the other hand, employ a methodology in which a common network time can be transferred to each network node. In other words, often the real technology enabler is that all the clocks in a defined network are synchronized to each other, even if they all run to what is any arbitrarily defined time-base. The “real time” doesn’t matter as much as how closely the node times agree with each other. As Einstein famously taught us: “Everything is relative.”

For example, accurate synchronization enables GPS positioning to work because a user’s GPS receiver relies on time-of-arrival comparisons from four or more satellites transmitting their signals at the same instant. But — even in this GPS paradigm where atomic clocks are always touted to be the most fundamental of requirements — it is important to appreciate this: A GPS user’s receiver does not care how, or to what “time,” the satellites are made synchronous. The only things the user receiver needs to know is where the satellites are, and that the satellites are synchronized when they transmit their signal.

Unfortunately sustaining high-precision, reliable time synchronization of multiple network nodes is a mammoth engineering task. Just ask the US Air Force! All clocks, no matter how accurate they are, eventually drift, so they cannot remain synchronized without comparison and adjustment.

Given the world’s exploding, insatiable demand for more data transmitted via ever-faster wireless systems, synchronization will become even more important than it is today. More wireless users and more bandwidth per user means that nanosecond — or even picosecond — network synchronization is one of the emerging engineering challenges of the 21st century. There are few resource on earth which are as scarce, or more precious today, than spectrum. So there is no question that better or cheaper ways to greatly improve network frequency and synchronization will translate directly into better use of the world’s exceptionally valuable, extremely limited spectrum resource.

Reference: GPSworld

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