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Hackin’ The Net

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Quick! What time is it? And if you do know (or don’t) what’s that got to do with a computer and tech column?
Well, the answer is everything and giving credit where credit is due, we have been struggling with the time on our computers, our phones, iPads, our “atomic clock” and our regular, old watches for awhile now because they all show different times at the same time. So what IS the time?
Oh, and about that credit…just when I thought I was the only one having this issue along comes, in The Telegraph, the British national newspaper I read daily on www. pressreader.com (It’s a great paid service with thousands of the world’s newspapers available for computer, iPad and Droid and worth checking out.) where in a column entitled “Time has lost all meaning in the digital age” by Alexander Armstrong I see the same issue raised. In it, Armstrong worries about what will become of “the pips.” No, not the Gladys Knight ones, but those the BBC has been broadcasting for nine decades to signify the precise top of each hour. There are five “beeps” (to use a different word than pips) followed by a longer tone signifying exactly when the top of the hour has been reached.

The problem, as we sorted out at our house a few months back and Armstrong discussed in his column, is that with all the different media we have these days, no time signal (pips, beeps, that tone CBS Radio uses to start their hourly news or even the NPR top of the hour indicator) really tells when the clock is straight up at any hour for that matter. The reason is the delivery method, and that can cause quite a discrepancy.

Armstrong found out about the problem when he tried listening in Christmas Eve to the annual Lessons & Carols from King’s College Cambridge in every room of his home. He reports he put on the broadcast on a regular FM, his internet radio, his iPhone, a digital (in this country called HD) radio and on his computer only to find that he could not listen in even- room of his home simultaneously because his devices were not in synch — off by over a minute from the first to the last to hit the show’s 3 o’clock start.

Go on, I know you readers will be looking with some form of incredulity and want to find out if I’m telling the truth, so put down the paper and put on your favorite station on a radio. Then go to www.tunein.com or any of the other iPhone or internet radio station players (WunderRadio is a fave of ours, too) or the station’s website and listen to the same broadcast. You will be amazed at the delay one (likely the internet or phone) receiver has when compared to the on-the-air old fashioned radio.

Add in satellite TV audio or SiriusXM options and you 22,000 to 24,000 miles up and a similar distance back (remember radio waves like light travel at 186,000 miles a second) and there’s another time shift.

Try the internet and things are strained through miles of mostly undersea cables if you are listening to an overseas station. There’s a great map showing all the internet cables and their routes which you can find online at www.submarine-cable-map-2014.telegeography.com Give that a look and you’ll find out one of 10 undersea cables could be carrying that BBC or other British show to your computer, travelling under the Atlantic via UK beaches and U.S. terminals, mostly in New York or New Jersey.
Is it any wonder those pips or that broadcast gets a bit out of synch along the way?

The issue gets further complicated when you add in the fact internet TV or radio even works. As my old friend Andy Granger told me when internet radio was in its infancy (and Seattle’s classical KING-FM teamed up with Real Audio to try it). There was no XM or Sirius, much less Netflix or other services delivered via the net, when Andy told me, “There’s no way this should work. Just keep that in mind.”
What he was meaning was (and is) that for a symphony or a rock concert or even a talk show to get streamed it has to be split into a gazillion tiny “packets” then sent down the line while the receiving computer picks them out of the literally millions of other items on the internet and puts them back together all in microseconds so Beethoven’s 5th still sounds the same here as it did in Sydney and Katy Perry sounds like she did when broadcast in London. Imagine the fun it would be if you got packets of both intermingled!

But back to the time. In the day we had clocks and a few of we brave shortwave radio lovers set ours via WWV, the U.S. government’s time & frequency standards station just outside Fort Collins, Colorado. It still exists and still broadcasts on 2.5, 5, 10, 15 and 20 MHz. If you own a shortwave radio (we still do) you can hear the WWV signals to set your watch.

Check out http://www.nist.gov/pml/div688/grp40/wwv.cfm for a complete history of the station and more info.
Also you can listen via the net, but be aware of this disclaimer on the WWV website: “Where can I see NIST time on the Internet? The current time is shown on the Internet at www.time.gov – it synchronizes with NIST every ten minutes. There is an accuracy statement based on a measurement of the round-trip network delay. This delay is measured using your computer clock as a timer each time synchronization is made. The site provides a time-of-day service, and it should not be used to measure frequency or time interval, nor should it be used to establish traceability to NIST…” NIST, by the way, stands for the National Institute of Standards & Technology, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

But what does that say or mean? All that tech talk about network delays and synchronization means that what you hear on the shortwave and what you hear online are probably not going to be exactly in synch. The good news is that these will be off by so little most folks will not notice (Or dare we say care?) but they will be off.

Add satellite delivery, different radio formats (regular and HD in this country) as well as listening via other devices and what time it is starts to get hazy.

Compare the time of that beep on your fave station to the time on your phone (set by the nearest cell tower’s clock which connects to the NIST and the company’s computers which provide the tower’s service) and there is another option to answer the age-old question: What time is it?

Is it any wonder that after 90 years those BBC pips are in grave danger? They do have a neat history (which you can read about at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwich_Time_Signal) and just like the sound of Big Ben is associated with the BBC will always be as well, so do not look for them to go away. But just as Armstrong said in his Telegraph article a few weeks ago and we discovered at our house, the pips may be historic, but don’t trust them to give you the exact time in this modern era because they don’t. They are still a fun bit of history and if you travel to the UK and tune in on a regular FM or Long wave radio they will still be accurate. Anywhere or via anything else, you probably don’t have time to know about.

Besides, for most of us being within a minute or two is good enough to make that beauty shop or dinner appointment and we don’t really care about microseconds. Unless, of course we are trying to listen to the same broadcast via the internet, a radio or live, but we already explained all that.

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