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National Timing Centre programme

Providing the basis for resilient time distribution across the country

Led by NPL, the National Timing Centre programme is paving the way for trusted and assured time and frequency across the UK. NPL is the home of UK time, from here accurate timing is supplied to key locations, such as the financial hub in London. Funded by UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund, the National Timing Centre (NTC) programme is working to develop an infrastructure of secure locations across the UK, providing a basis for resilient time distribution across the country.

The development of the programme presents a clear opportunity for the UK to advance security and resilience of the national time and frequency infrastructure, whilst supporting the development of skills. Clearly defined, resilient time and frequency, will also help to enable trust, promoting the acceleration and uptake of new technologies such as smart grids, 5G, smart cities and connected autonomous vehicles, as well as factories of the future. In conjunction with Innovate UK, the programme will support UK companies to develop new products and services to meet these new needs, based on a successful NPL and Innovate UK partnership model.

It will help to bring structure to our data frameworks – providing access to secure time to help track data transfer accurately. This will also help ensure compliance with standards. For instance, with technological advancements in financial trading we rely more heavily on our ability to identify exactly when a transaction took place, bringing clarity to the market.

The ubiquity of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), like GPS, have unlocked the benefits of precise time to millions. Through GNSS consumers have been able to access, amongst other things, better navigation and mobile phone signal. Yet GNSS is vulnerable to interference and disruption and therefore unable to provide a truly trusted time source. This dependence comes at a cost, with the impact of even a five day GNSS downtime predicted to lose the UK economy £5.2 billion as referenced in the Blackett Review.

A more trusted and reliable time source is needed for an advancing society, and to underpin secure applications in future. The NTC programme will leverage a range of time and frequency distribution technologies; including fibre, communication satellites, terrestrial broadcasts, and GNSS.

This combined approach will improve resilience through a trusted time infrastructure, helping to form the backbone of our society – whether through the internet, energy supplies or health and emergency services, the NTC programme will be key to the country’s critical infrastructure. 

This new structure will also help to make accurate and traceable time distribution accessible to users across the UK. Industry will be able to take advantage of precise timing for smart systems, whether manufacturing hubs, or fintech communities, driving innovation and the development of new products and services. Organisations will be able to tap into this infrastructure on a priority basis to align with the global time scale Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) via Customer Access Nodes (CANs) which will deployed from 2023. Researchers will be able to innovate and speed up R&D with better access to accurate time and frequency sources, and policymakers will be assured that the country’s critical national infrastructure remains secure.  The programme also supports a clear supply chain of services and skills in time and frequency, which will provide huge benefits to the UK economy.

Dr Leon Lobo, Head of the National Timing Centre Programme, National Physical Laboratory (NPL) states: “The UK will play a leading role in developing resilient infrastructures for time, protecting and enhancing our critical national infrastructure. For the UK to maintain leadership in this field however, we need to ensure we foster the skills to continue to drive innovation.”

Dr Pete Thompson FREng, CEO, National Physical Laboratory (NPL) states, “At NPL we are proud to be leading the way in providing trusted and assured time and frequency. The work undertaken by the team has ensured that the National Timing Centre programme will provide huge benefits to society, whilst underpinning secure applications in the future.” 

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive, UK Research and Innovation states: “Our emergency services, energy network and economy rely on the precise time source that global satellite navigation systems provide. The failure of these systems has been identified as a major risk, and The National Timing Centre programme will help to protect both vital services and the economy from the disruption this would cause while delivering considerable economic benefits.”

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Our economy relies on satellites for accurate timing. Without satellites sending us timing signals, everything from the clocks and maps on our phones, to our emergency services and energy grid would be at risk. I’m delighted that this world-first centre will see our brightest minds, from Surrey to Strathclyde, working together to reduce the risks from satellite failure.”

 

19 Feb 2020