Y2 K: The Gps System Needs Its Clock Reset
Just when you thought you knew everything you needed to know about the dreaded year 2000 computer glitch, guess what? There's another, lesser-known techno bug to worry about that could start vexing businesses and consumers as early as 10 months from now.
The problem: Precisely 13 seconds before midnight on Saturday, Aug. 21, 1999, hundreds of thousands of satellite-aided time and navigational devices--gizmos used to help guide everything from the Pentagon's smart weapons to campers trekking through the outback--could suddenly go kaput.
What gives? Look to the heavens--to the military's Global Positioning System, a network of 24 satellites developed by the Air Force in the 1970s to fight the cold war. Today, the GPS system also is used by businesses and consumers to time financial transactions down to the nanosecond, guide cars and boats, and help fly airplanes in stormy weather.
And now comes a problem just as GPS is starting to take flight in the consumer marketplace. Researcher Frost & Sullivan predicts sales will jump from $1.6 billion last year to more than $5 billion in 2001--if the GPS bug doesn't create havoc, that is. "One small programming and software glitch could turn off some people if it's not fixed in time," says Stephanie Moore, a GPS market analyst with Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.
Trouble is, the GPS network uses a unique time-keeping system that runs on a 1,024-week cycle, which ends in the final seconds of Aug. 21. Back in the 1970s, cost pressures and bandwidth limitations forced programmers designing the GPS system for the Air Force to limit the cycle to 1,024 weeks. That way, the software that kept the GPS calendar could be squeezed into a small block of code.
"ROLLOVER-DUMB." But now, some GPS users may have to pay the piper. When the current 1,024-week cycle ends, it's not clear how many of the estimated
3 million military and commercial GPS receivers will be able to handle the rollover. Receivers designed to accommodate the date--mostly those made after 1995--shouldn't be affected because their software was programmed to interpret the new cycle. But experts say many older commercial receivers are "rollover-dumb" and could suffer a range of problems from minor glitches in service to complete shutdowns. "It's another familiar story of computer engineers designing these systems and failing to visualize or care much about what could happen years down the road," says Rich Bailey, a product manager for Datum Inc. in San Jose, a systems-timing manufacturer.
Businesses won't escape. Some companies have synchronized their computer networks to GPS time in order to record the exact second of a financial transaction. AT&T Corp., for example, says it aligns its core computer networks against GPS time because it improves the accuracy of time-stamping on critical financial transactions. Some worry that when the rollover occurs, receivers may start thinking it's Jan. 5, 1980--the date the current GPS period began. "If your system suddenly starts reading that a transaction was made Jan. 5, 1980, it might affect interest-rate calculations," says Ron Stearns, a GPS market analyst for Frost & Sullivan.
SIMPLE FIX. The good news is that the fix itself is pretty simple. Unlike the year 2000 problem, this one doesn't involve updating millions of lines of date-doomed computer code. Instead, it's a matter of determining whether your GPS receiver needs to be replaced--or upgraded with a software patch that will "trick" the receiver into thinking the August rollover date will never come.
But getting the word out to all those who own or use receivers is proving tough. For the most part, big businesses and government agencies expect to have their systems upgraded by next summer. The Securities & Exchange Commission, for example, says most large financial-services firms will have already made fixes by then. AT&T says it has upgraded or replaced any receivers that could have been a problem. And Boeing Co. says it has the rollover problem under control. "We started testing for this back in 1994, and so we don't anticipate any problems," says Boeing spokesman Bob Smith.
But small companies and consumers may be caught off guard. Moreover, experts say they might have trouble wading through all the products and manufacturers. More than 375 models of GPS receivers are on the commercial market from more than 60 makers. Charles Trimble, founder of Trimble Navigation Ltd., a Silicon Valley GPS receiver maker, says the task of addressing the commercial market is "next to impossible. No manufacturer has an accurate or complete database of who owns these things or how they're using them."
The Defense Dept. may also find itself in a bind. Although the Air Force has assigned a GPS team to the problem, it may not be able to make all the fixes in time. "We don't have a good sense of how many of the commercial receivers we bought will be affected. It's not a majority, but there could be many, and those most prone to trouble could be older," says Aaron Reninger, a spokesman for the military's GPS program office in Los Angeles. The agency is upgrading receivers in the six GPS ground stations around the globe.
Defense's plans for all military aircraft to use GPS for navigation by 2000 and its growing dependence on GPS-guided smart bombs have heightened its concerns about the vulnerability of the aviation system. "People are depending on the GPS system far beyond anybody's expectations," Lieutenant Colonel Rick Reaser, chief engineer for the NAVSTAR GPS Joint Program Office at Los Angeles Air Force Base, told a congressional panel looking into the rollover problem.
What to do? If you have a GPS receiver, contact the manufacturer. "Only the manufacturer will be able to figure out by testing which receiver will have problems and which won't," says Ed Parson, a GPS analyst with the U.S. Air Force's Space & Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
FREE UPGRADES. To help drum up awareness, both Trimble (www.trimble.com) and the U.S. Coast Guard (www.navcen.oscg.mil/systems) have created detailed Web sites outlining the problem. Trimble and other manufacturers also are offering customers free upgrades and some discounts on newer, glitch-free models.
But even if fixes are made, there's no guarantee of a glitch-free Aug. 22. "No one can say with complete certainty that we'll know what will happen on Aug. 22," says Trimble. Adds Bradford Parkinson, a Stanford University professor of aeronautics and a co-developer of the GPS program: "There's no way we can know everything at the time technology is developed. It's part of the complexity of the technological age." And, perhaps, a warning of its power.