Using MSF as a Timing Reference for NTP Servers

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Atomic clocks are incredibly expensive and generally they are normally only to be found in large scale physics laboratories such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology (Colorado) or the National Physical Laboratory in the UK.

Fortunately many national laboratories broadcast the UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) time from their atomic clocks via a radio broadcast.

In the UK the national timing broadcast is called MSF and is broadcast by NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in Cumbria. The MSF broadcast is used by throughout the UK and parts of Europe to synchronise consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches. In addition, MSF is used for high-level applications such as network time synchronisation utilising NTP.

The time code contains the year, day of year, hour, minute, second, and flags that indicate the status of Daylight Saving Time, leap years, and leap seconds.

MSF operates on a frequency of 60 kHz and carries a time and date code that can be received and decoded by a wide range of readily available radio-controlled clocks and provides a received accuracy should be less than 10 milliseconds (1/100 of a second).

While many NTP servers now use GPS to receive a timing reference, the advantage of using a radio transmission is that a signal can be received indoors (a GPS antenna needs a good view of the sky).

However, the radio signal has a finite range and can be blocked by skyscrapers, mountains and dense conurbations. A radio based NTP server usually consists of a rack-mountable time server, and an antenna, consisting of a ferrite bar inside a plastic enclosure, which receives the radio time and frequency broadcast. The antenna should always be mounted horizontally at a right angle toward the transmission for optimum signal strength.

Similar national timing transmissions are broadcast from other countries in the US the signal is referred to as WWVB and is broadcast by the NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) in Fort Collins, Colorado, other systems are broadcast in Frankfurt, Germany (DCF-77), Japan (JJY) and France (TDF).


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Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the NTP Server and Time Synchronisation industry. Richard N Williams on Google+