Thursday, May 11, 2006

Times changing for radio signal

Wednesday, 10 May 2006, 02:17 GMT 03:17 UK

Times changing for radio signal
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

Many industries depend on knowing the exact time

Listen to the 'pips'
The radio signal used to set Britain's clocks is to move from Rugby where it has been transmitted since 1927.

The new home for the signal, which is used to keep the "pips" heard on BBC radio services to time, will be in Anthorn on the west coast of Cumbria.

The signal is used to manage a wide range of electronic networks, including cash machines, speed cameras and mobile phone billing systems.

It is accurate to within 1,000th of a second of Coordinated Universal Time.

The signal is kept in line by referencing two atomic clocks.

Test months

Maintaining accurate time is essential to keeping the modern world working
Steve McQuillan NPL managing director

Despite the advent of satellite and on-line methods of accurate time-keeping, demand for the radio service has never been greater. The system will be upgraded in its move to Cumbria.

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which has been responsible for the Rugby signal since 1950, says the new transmitters at Anthorn will not require as much maintenance.

The switchover will take place following a three-month test period at the beginning of next year with the final transfer from Rugby to Anthorn occurring at the end of March.

NPL has reassured most users that they need take no action to continue receiving the service.

"Maintaining accurate time is essential to keeping the modern world working," said NPL managing director, Steve McQuillan.

Accurate time

He added: "Most people only need time to be accurate to within a few seconds or even minutes, but global navigation systems, the internet, e-mail, television, the power industry, transport, and financial systems are just some of the industries that depend on very accurate time to operate."

The MSF 60 kHz signal, as it is known, is currently transmitted from the Rugby Radio Station by BT under contract from NPL.

The Anthorn transmission, however, will be undertaken by VT Communications.

Its managing, director Doug Umbers, said: "We are very proud to be working in partnership with NPL on a programme of national significance.

"We are excited to be implementing a highly resilient solution, which will provide tangible benefits to all stakeholders."

NPL, at Teddington in south-west London, is the United Kingdom's national standards laboratory.

It is one of only five centres worldwide using the latest caesium fountain atomic clocks to contribute to the world time standard, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

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