If you're old enough to remember the Y2K scare then this is going to seem like Déjà vu. 

That's because on April 6th, GPS devices worldwide will be subject to the “GPS Week Rollover Event,” and if you don’t know what that is you may want to keep reading.  Its impact could cause serious disruptions - or at least major annoyances - to your life and business.

Like Y2K, the issue also has to do with dates.  Apparently the 31 satellites owned and operated by the U.S. government rely on something called "GPS time" which uses 10 bits to count the weeks and seconds within a week.  It seems that there's a limitation to this data in the satellites and after 1,024 weeks (or every 19.7 years) all of their clocks need to be reset again. Well, that time is next week: April 6th, to be exact.

So why should we care? Well, think about it: how many devices used GPS on August 21, 1999, the last year of the rollover? Not many. Now ask yourself the same question about today.  Uh oh.

We're talking smartphones, cars, planes, banking, shipping, transportation, utilities...pretty much everything.  It’s such a big issue that the Department of Homeland Security has issued guidance about the event.

“First of all, I would say it’s legitimate to be concerned,” Brad Parkinson, a recalled emeritus Professor at Stanford University and best known as the lead architect, advocate, and developer of GPS told San Francisco television station KPIX. “It is affecting everything that we can imagine.”

The effects of millions of GPS-enabled devices potentially resetting to a wrong date would cause them to be out of sync with each other and other devices and making them behave in a "bizarre" manner. How bizarre?  “If you’re driving your car and it were to suddenly say you’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, be very suspicious,” Parkinson said in the KPIX report.  Hear that mom? Stay off the roads next week, OK?

The effects of the rollover could impact your business too.

“If you administer an enterprise network however -; and especially if this involves critical infrastructure for government or industry -; then you should start by determining which parts if any of your infrastructure may depend upon GPS for reliable operation,” Mitch Tulloch writes on TechGenix, a technology publisher. “Then analyze how your infrastructure could be impacted by GPS timing failure caused by the rollover event. You probably also want to contact your GPS appliance vendor to determine any potential issues with their devices concerning the rollover event.”

Before you start stocking up on canned goods and bottled water just know that the rollover's impact will mostly affect older devices that haven't been upgraded and - thankfully - most GPS manufacturers are aware of the issue and have been pushing out patches. Future GPS devices will support a 13 bit timestamp instead of the existing 10 bit so that the rollover event will only happen once every 157 years. I’m sure the robots who will be running the world then will have figured out a more permanent solution.

Published on: Apr 4, 2019