[time-nuts] Low cost synchronization

Mike Ciholas mikec at ciholas.com
Thu Aug 18 13:29:40 EDT 2005


I have a challenging research project to build thousands, perhaps 
millions, of devices that maintain mutual synchronization.  The 
devices need to be low cost (under $20 retail, $8 manufacturing), 
small in size (key chain fob), and low power (operate at least 18 
months on a battery).  Synchronization ideally needs to be within 
a second or two over a year but there is some leeway to trade 
cost for performance here up to perhaps 10 seconds of variation 
per year.  Ideally, the device works anywhere in the world but we 
may have to limit it to North America.

1. Crystal Modeling

First idea was to get stable 32.768KHz watch crystals, perform a 
factory initial calibration, and use a temperature sensor to 
correct for the crystal temp curve.  This idea is the cheapest, 
simplest, works everywhere, and uses the lowest power.

Initial tolerance on the crystals is +/- 20 ppm (I've not found 
better in commodity parts), which equates to +/- 10 minutes a 
year, clearly unacceptable.  I suspect that if I did an initial 
factory calibration and tracked temperature, I might improve this 
to +/- 2 ppm much like Maxim did with this part:


But even so, +/- 1 minute per year is not really good enough.  I 
suspect getting to a few seconds (+/- 0.1ppm) is unrealistic with 
any algorithm one can come up with.  The base physics is simply 
not that predictable.

2. WWVB Receiver

A second idea is to provide some external reference and the most 
logical choice is WWVB as used in several wrist watches.  A 
little more cost but manageable.  We've dissected several wrist 
watches and found they use a small ferrite antenna.  The 
reception performance is spotty, however.  I was unable to lock 
at work (lots of equipment) but did well at home (electrically 
quiet).  If we go to the NE tip of Maine, that's twice as far 
from WWVB as we are here, so I wonder if the watch will ever pick 
up the signal.  The saving grace is that the device needs to get 
the signal only sporadically, once a week or even once a month 
would do it since we can feed that back into correcting the local 

The negatives are that such a device is limited to the US and 
nearby, and it may have poor performance in many locales due to 
weak signals, local interference, and the small antenna rod we 
are limited to due to size (less than 1 inch).  It does cost 
more, maybe $1-2 more in production quantity.  Right now, this 
seems like the best option available to us.

There are similar time broadcasting stations in Europe and China.  
We could build a unit that works in those regions, either as 
different models, or as a unit with multiple receivers.  Still 
not global, but perhaps covering 50% of the world's population?

3. GPS Receiver

A more precise external reference, use a GPS receiver.  This gets 
us global coverage and is very precise.  Uses a lot of power, so 
we would only activate it very briefly and not very often (once a 
week perhaps) to save battery.

Major issue here is cost.  Best I can do for an OEM module is 
around $25 in qty which busts the budget severely.  It also has 
similar problems of being used in a place with no sky visibility.  
Size can be a problem in the cheaper modules.  Some modules are 
quite small:


Cute, huh?

4. GPS Time Receiver

This is fantasy land.  I don't need the 100ns time reference, all 
I need is something good to one second or so.  In this case, it 
seems possible to receive only 1 satellite, decode the digital 
data, and extract the time.  It would be off by the variation in 
pseudo range which can't be corrected for.  But I don't care 
about that level of accuracy.

The question is, if you don't have to track multiple satellites 
and don't need to recover the pseudo range accurately, can you 
build a wickedly cheaper GPS time receiver?  My expectation is no.  
You probably can get down to maybe half if you are very diligent, 
which still puts me out of the budget plus has a ridiculous high 
NRE.  Unless this already exists, anyone?

5. Cellular

We've done extensive work with embedded cell phone modules.  
These modules are most often used for wireless remote monitoring 
and transport digital data.  They do get the time from the cell 

Again, cost is a major issue.  An OEM cell module runs over $65 
in qty so this idea is sunk.  It would also suffer from lack of 
global and local coverage.

6. TV Stations

TV stations broadcast a time signal that VCRs/DVRs use for clock 

Again, lack of global or even regional coverage.  Some TV 
stations, annoyingly, broadcast the wrong time, too.  Cost is 
probably high, but this idea was rejected before this was 

7. Atomic Reference

Still research, but NIST has a small scale atomic reference:


Unfortunately, not ready for commercial apps, probably will be 
too expensive, and it uses too much power.  The best I could do 
on power is to power it up periodically and adjust the local 
crystal to it which integrates long term error.

8. Other?

So, did I leave anything out?

It seems obvious to me that no amount of effort to make a local 
crystal stable will meet the requirements.  Thus we need to look 
for external references.  The best we can do is WWVB as it is the 
only thing that can possibly meet our cost objectives.  If it 
works in the continental US, that would be acceptable for now.

That leaves me with two basic questions:

1. How well do the WWVB wrist watches work?

2. What merchant silicon exists for receiving WWVB?

On the first, the three watches we bought do sync up here (950 
miles from WWVB).  I wonder how well they work in Maine and 
Florida (1900 miles from WWVB).

On the second, I've only found these leads so far:


These chips appear to be basic receiver circuits using an 
external 60KHz crystal as a filter.  At 60KHz, I was wondering 
why there aren't direct digital radios?  It would seem like 
building in the DSP logic would be cheaper/better than the old 
fashioned methods shown here and could greatly enhance the 
ability to pick out weak WWVB signals.  Has anyone performed such 
experiments, basically digitize the antenna signal and done DSP 
on it?

Thanks for all who read this far!

Mike Ciholas                            (812) 476-2721 x101
CIHOLAS Enterprises                     (812) 476-2881 fax
255 S. Garvin St, Suite B               mikec at ciholas.com
Evansville, IN 47713                    http://www.ciholas.com

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