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GPS version of Y2K in just six weeks

15 February 2019

Hands up everyone who remembers all the fuss and fear that surrounded the predictions of disaster at the end of last century?

The Y2K bug was predicted to throw a huge number of computer systems into disarray and leave us without telecommunications and data-processing services as the millennium rolled over into the year 2000.

Fortunately, virtually all the predictions of doom and disaster failed to eventuate.

And now we're facing a new version of the Y2K catastrophe... the GPS roll-over!

A number of news sites have been publishing reports that a roll-over issue in the GPS system could affect the ability of systems reliant on GPS data to continue working properly after April 6th.

Fear not however, it seems that (yet again) the risk is being grossly overstated.

The root cause of the problem is a counter which stores the week number using just 10 bits, resulting in an over-flow period of 210 week values -- or about 20 years in real terms.

This will be the second time that this 10-bit week-counter value has overflowed, the last being back in 1999 -- when the sky did not fall as a result.

If there are any systems still working on software that doesn't account for the roll-over then there is the potential that they may get the date wrong... but that's not the end of the world and there are likely to be only a very few such systems still in use.

According to reports, any devices built in the past decade or so should have software that handles this over-flow and earlier systems are likely to have been already replaced or superseded -- hence the impact of this roll-over is likely to be very small. That won't stop today's sensationalist news media from trying to create hysteria by way of clickbait headlines however.

Another mitigating factor is that many new GPS receivers also pick up signals from the Russian GLONASS and European Galileo systems which do not suffer from this problem. Indeed, a cheap $12 GPS receiver from Banggood can pick up over 20 satellites here in New Zealand, of which little more than half are actually US run GPS birds.

So fear not Chicken Little, the sky will not fall and your SatNav should not end up directing you to Siberia instead of the local New World supermarket.

However, if the worst does happen, you should consider brushing up on your basic navigation skills because apparently this is something we are rapidly losing in the age of SatNav systems. (citation).

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