Time Lords set for three-week battle over leap seconds

ITU radio gabfest to consider the very future of time itself

An upcoming International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference is about to become an international battleground over whether or not to retain the leap second – the periodic adjustment of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) so it stays in agreement with atomic clocks.

The debate's expected to be so intense it will continue throughout the World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC), which have an agenda spanning more than three weeks starting November 2.

In spite of frequent predictions of a leap second apocalypse, the last leap second passed pretty much without incident. Still, factions in the world of international standards keep the issue ticking over.

That wasn't the case in 2012, when Australian airlines Qantas and Virgin Australia both staggered when the Amadeus booking system crashed, and servers run by Mozilla, Reddit, Yelp, and FourSquare struggled. By contrast, 2015 was so unremarkable that some people argue we've worked out how to deal with leap seconds, so we may as well keep them.

In the blue corner there are the traditionalists, who point out that if we don't adjust clocks to keep them in synch with Earth's gently-slowing rotation, midday at Greenwich will be half an hour off – by the year 2700.

On the other hand, as the ITU explained in 2012 when it scheduled debate for this year's conference, keeping leap seconds demands what it calls "specialised ad-hoc time systems."

As The Dilbert Gazette IEEE Spectrum explains, the factional split to be on show at the WRC sets the Americas and the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (including Australia, Japan, and China) as abolitionists at odds with traditionalists like the UK, the former-Soviet countries aligned with Russia, and the Arab Spectrum Management Group.

Europe will be arriving at the conference without a formal position, Spectrum notes, because although 20 countries voted in favour of switching to atomic time, opposition led by Russia and the UK stymied the pre-conference conference held in Norway in September. ®


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