What Will You Do If WWVB Goes Silent?

Buried on page 25 of the 2019 budget proposal for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), under the heading “Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination”, there’s a short entry that has caused plenty of debate and even a fair deal of anger among those in the amateur radio scene:

NIST will discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO. These radio stations transmit signals that are used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches, and may be used in other applications like appliances, cameras, and irrigation controllers.

The NIST stations in Hawaii and Colorado are the home of WWV, WWVH, and WWVB. The oldest of these stations, WWV, has been broadcasting in some form or another since 1920; making it the longest continually operating radio station in the United States. Yet in order to save approximately $6.3 million, these time and frequency standard stations are potentially on the chopping block.

What does that mean for those who don’t live and breathe radio? The loss of WWV and WWVH is probably a non-event for anyone outside of the amateur radio world. In fact, most people probably don’t know they even exist. Today they’re primarily used as frequency standards for calibration purposes, but in recent years have been largely supplanted by low-cost oscillators.

But WWVB on the other hand is used by millions of Americans every day. By NIST’s own estimates, over 50 million timepieces of some form or another automatically synchronize their time using the digital signal that’s been broadcast since 1963. Therein lies the debate: many simply don’t believe that NIST is going to shut down a service that’s still actively being used by so many average Americans.

The problem lies with the ambiguity of the statement. That the older and largely obsolete stations will be shuttered is really no surprise, but because the NIST budget doesn’t specifically state whether or not the more modern WWVB is also included, there’s room for interpretation. Especially since WWVB and WWV are both broadcast from Ft. Collins, Colorado.

What say the good readers of Hackaday? Do you think NIST is going to take down the relatively popular WWVB? Are you still using devices that sync to WWVB, or have they all moved over to pulling their time down over the Internet? If WWVB does go off the air, are you prepared to setup your own pirate time station?

[Thanks to AG6QR for the tip.]

119 thoughts on “What Will You Do If WWVB Goes Silent?

  1. I’ve been wearing a big clunky casio g-shock atomic solar watch for an eternity it seems. I love it. I stays working, forever, and it is always on the money for time. I even bought them for both of my sons and my dad. We all still use them. The’re virtually indestructable and always right. It’s hard to imagine them not being there on my wrist. It has become a part of me. (figuratively – I do take it off while I sleep, not like it’s ingrown or anything like the lawnmower tree :-) )

    1. Had my casio atomic solar watch for over a decade now…

      Previous watches have needed a battery every few years, and the time to be updated every couple of months to remain accurate… Previous casio solar watch only had one of those two issues…

      This casio just keeps going, needs no interference from me, just put it on in the morning, take it off at night and and always assume it’s probably correct (and if you really start to question it just check for the indicator if it sanc last night.)

      Only thing I ever do with it is change the timezone when I’m traveling…

  2. Serious question: what if there’s some old timey deadman’s handle that thinks that since the NIST time signal is out, the poop has hit the impeller?

    I’m not talking about “automatic nuclear retaliation”, I’m talking about “obscure failsafe control system in a power plant that is poorly documented and will take a week to find and bypass”.

    1. Excellent point that I never considered until you mentioned it. As old as some systems are, there indeed might be something somewhere that would see that signal loss as a trigger to execute some command that would not be good. Hopefully, those with that type of system will realize this and make changes before this happens…IF it happens.

    2. The WWVB signal uses 60kHz and the propagation for that is weird—most of the CONUS only gets it overnight, with no daytime reception. So, any effects would have to be long-term and not based on instantaneous dropouts, which happen all the time.

      1. they could shut it off during the daylight hours and only transmit at night when most of my devices sync up anyway. that would save them the electricity cost for the transmitter.

      2. Not so since the Navy donated one of their old VLF transmitters to NIST. WAS TRUE back in 80s, when reception in Silicon valley required an expensive comercial receiver (HP117A or TFT VLF comparitor, both of which used active antennas.) Since NIST put the new transmitter online in the 90s should be able to pick signal up anywhere in continental USA. Thus the plethora of self setting clocks and watches.

    1. GPS is, indeed, an excellent alternative. The trouble is that on average, the indoor signal of GPS is worse. You can (try to) make up for it with external antennas you throw in a window or what not, but that’s not going to fly for the average wall clock that’s equipped with WWVB sync.

      1. Well high sensitivity chipsets have become pretty good, as well as using not just the US GPS. But let’s not forget the cellular part of assisted-GPS which has a time component.

        1. High sensitivity or not, the frequency at which GPS (or Glonass or Galileo) work does not penetrate walls at all. So regardless of which system you use it is of no use if there is a concrete roof between you and the satellite. Without an external antenna you won’t have a signal.

          OTOH, for a low frequency signal like the 60kHz WWVB (or 77.5kHz DCF77 from Germany) a building is effectively invisible because the wavelength is so long. A wall will attenuate the signal but rarely block it outright.

          Then there is the price – a GPS receiver + antenna still cost more than a simple LW receiver with a ferrite rod antenna which can be directly embedded in every clock. The GPS will likely be only one and then you need to distribute the clock signal across the building/installation.

          So of these signals disappear, a lot of clocks need to be replaced/refitted with other time sources at a fairly high cost.

    2. all fine and good if you have a 2 story house, but for many in apartments or office buildings this is not an option
      i am aware you dont need a full GPS lock to get timing but in my dorm in college there was 0 reception
      and by 0 i mean 0, hackRF with full gain and the GPS antenna built in LNA showed absolutely nothing

      1. And how. Just to take electricity… WWVH transmits on 2.5, 5, 10, and 15 MHz at 10 kW (2.5 kW for 2.5 MHz). That’s 32.5 kW of output power, which you’d have to conservatively estimate would require at least 70 kW of electricity to produce (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it requires more like 150 kW). And that’s just for the transmitter’s final amplifiers. The whole facility probably needs at least 150-200 kW to keep going. On Kauai. That’s going to be pretty expensive, I would think.

        1. At $0.20/kwh, your figures would come to around $350,000. The government probably gets discounts on the power and also probably discounts for being a high-use customer. So the electric bill, while still pretty high, isn’t as large of a part of the cost as you may think.

        2. ASK at such low frequencies should be fairly efficient, not like VHF FM transmitters…also, the transmit power is EIRP (all antennas have some gain), so further real input power reduction.

      1. Just buy a couple less of those F-35 aircraft (Wikipedia claims the US Air Force will end up with a total of 1,763 when all is said and done. Surely they could reduce that order down to 1760 or so and spend the $240 million those extra 3 fighters would have cost to buy on something more worthwhile (better yet, stop buying the damn things completly given that (AFAIK) none of the countries the US might actually be flying these things against have anything that presents any kind of threat even to older aircraft like the F-15 or F-16)

    1. I would guess a significant chunk of that goes to antenna maintenance. WWVH is in a corrosive environment, right next to the ocean with its salt spray. WWV/WWVB are in an area frequented by thunderstorms. The antenna farms at both locations are quite large.

      There’s also the maintenance of the one-of-a-kind transmitters, as well as the cost of maintaining the buildings and other facilities. And the logistics cost of supporting the outpost on that remote shore of Kauai adds some expense, no doubt.

      It works out to around two pennies a year per person in the US.

  3. Like Spiritplumber says I think this has the implications of a Y2K scenario.

    My dad worked on some y2k issues back in the day and it was found out after some period of time that some failsafe system was offline do to a premature y2k issue.

    1. I have a wonderful Y2K memory….

      I got paid one million lire ($600 today?) to watch the changeover at some insurance company office. Good money for one night’s non-work at 18. Super boring though, right?

      No, because I asked permission to have someone over there, and we were told “As long as everything works and you only bring a bit of wine for the cheers at midnight, and we don’t have to clean up, sure”.

      The PCs they had were good enough to play Quake and Red Alert, so, LAN party night with a few geeky friends.

        1. We only got euro coins and notes in regular circulation a few years later (I think it was right after 9/11 so 2002?). People kept quoting prices in lire well into the 2000s.

    2. There were bigger issues related to the GPS week counter rollover back in 1999 (on Aug 22 to be precise). Where I worked, we Magellan GPS boards to set the clock for radars and all of them crashed (hundreds of them!) at the same time when all the GPS almanacs were erroneously deemed bogus! And guess what, it’s going to happen again in 2019! https://spectracom.com/resources/blog/lisa-perdue/2018/gps-2019-week-rollover-what-you-need-know

  4. Is WWVB all that “new”?

    I admit that as a kid in the early seventies I’d read about WWVL, which was down at 20KHz, which I assume had been there for !omg time, though Wikipedia says late fifties. It was the seventies when I started reading about WWVB, mostly in terms of frequency standard, the groundwater propagation at the lower frequency adding less inaccuracy than at shortwave. There was talk of WWVB for self-setting clocks, but not much.

    It was much later, maybe the nineties, when suddenly there were lots of cheap clocks, and watches, that self-set from WWVB.o

    There’s always CHU here in Canada, three shortwave frequencies (though in 47 years I don’t think I’ve heard the 14.XXX frequency). It sends a time code, though not compatible with the U.S. time stations, and since they aren’t on even MHz, not too useful as a frequency standard.

    I have four clocks and one watch that set via WWVB.

    Michael

    1. When I was in college, I had a Sun (it was an obsolete one, but it was *mine*) that I hooked up to a modem chip and a radio and was using CHU as a stratum 0 NTP source. I had to translate the BSD line discipline into a STREAMS module to make it work, but it did work.

  5. Theory: what does NIST do that the average American notices? If you were asked to put 10% of your budget on the chopping block for a vote, wouldn’t you put the most noticeable / least likely to be cut item on the list?

    1. That’s like asking what does a group of farmers in Iowa do that the average American notices? You may not notice it when it’s working but when the price of corn jumps $2.00 everyone pitches a fit.
      As the name suggests, the National Institute of Standards, controls scales, trading standards (ie weights used in certifying scales), provides calibration standards for construction, medicine, and industry.
      You don’t notice when it’s working, but you notice when it’s not.

      1. Putting the most public services at the front of the chopping block is common fare for bureaucrats being pissey. It created public outrage and the true story gets buried in the noise, and if all goes well they get the same funding that they used to or even more.

        Occasionally it backfires.

        The local “public” library here had their budget cut, so they made the best out of it.. NOT. They closed at 4PM and weekends. They pretty much made it so it was near impossible for a person working days to use the library. That created a big stink, but the people that funded them put out a stink of their own. They set minimum standards and also it got out what some of the employees were making. That did not help donations any. In the end they wound up being forced to make the best of it and make more rational decisions as to what services and paychecks to trim.

        It is like public radio, they plead poverty, but look at what some of those people on the air begging for money make a year, and now they could replace all of them with eager to break into the business people for free. Probably not the same snooty voices or as much feigned excitement over the same old classical music, but if they have a 90% music to 10% talking ratio, it would not make that much difference.

  6. I think there’s a good chance (maybe 60/30 +/- 10%) that they will shut down the time standards. In an exercise of short shortsightedness focused on next quarters profits they’re cutting programs that keep the standard of living where it is. the clocks themselves don’t represent a profit but the spinoffs on measuring time. radioactive decay , precision measurement do (broken windows fully acknowledged). NIST are fully willing to sacrifice old projects to keep new ones afloat. I only hope they make the right decisions.

  7. Surely someone on Hackaday.io will hack together a WWVB emulator transmitter based on an Arduino that gets its time information from GPS or NTP or the wireless phone network or something, and turns itself off between 5am and 10pm.

    1. This is what I thought as well! It would not be too difficult to have an Arduino ,or perhaps a Raspberry Pie if the power is needed, to sync with NTP and produce the signal…

    2. it would actually be quite easy and cheap … you probably could do it with just an ESP8266, NTP, a magnetic core antenna and some transistors
      BUT its not legal to transmit on this frequency and you really dont want to screw it up or have a glitch throw everything off
      this signal is not just for your clock but also used in infrastructure and you dont want to go messing around with that

      1. Amen to that. Unless you want to have a few vans with directional antennas to converge on your house, do not mess with this frequency.

        You can easily affect e.g. street lighting, perhaps clocks at a nearby railway station, airport or what have you and in that case the authorities are not going to be amused.

        If you do need to retrofit an old clock, it is better to emulate the demodulated signal and inject it using a wire directly into the clock past the receiver part.

          1. @John Blackthorn – As far as I know most of our street lights are dusk-to-dawn on a light sensor, although I imagine that some streetlights are linked to time tables for civil twilight, to avoid being set off by a bird landing on the sensor, snow, etc..

        1. Um if it is shut down then these devices will be wrong anyways, and would need replacing, so there would be no devices that would be affected by a diy signal? If they don’t exist nobody will notice that someone is setting them to the correct time everyday?

      2. If they switch off the WWVB signal, won’t the 60kHz band become completely empty? So, what signal would actually be impeded by my illegal transmitter?

        Of course, it might be that there’s military equipment that uses this clock, which could go berserk by my illegal transmitter (e.g. if I set the time wrong).

        But if that’s the case, what is the chance that that military equipment will already go berserk by the absence of the WWVB signal?

        If any piece of military equipment relies on the WWVB signal, isn’t it very dangerous to switch off that signal? Of course, it would be quite stupid to have some military equipment rely on an external signal that can be disturbed by the enemy. But it’s military, meaning that the creators were the ultimate paranoids. What if there is some 60’s automatic launch system that monitors the WWVB signal and triggers a nuclear strike in Russia, if the signal is disturbed?

  8. If they do retire the service, they should officially permit short range transmitters on its old frequency.

    I had an idea a while back to do a campaign to choose a specific SSID prefix for open WiFi networks that weren’t connected to the internet, but provided NTP and whatever else you might want to host there.

    So a device that needs the time could look for one of these SSIDs instead of dealing with trying to get GPS indoors. It wouldn’t be secure, but we already need a way to handle untrusted time.

    I’d say average all the untrusted sources, and change the system clock speed up to +-50ppm to try to approach the untrusted clock. That way at best you completely correct the local clock’s drift, and at worst, you double the drift in the system clock.

    Basically, an untrusted sources has exactly enough power to correct the estimated error, plus a tiny bit more to correct for what previous bad clocks might have done.

    1. Only problem is that wifi is way more power hungry when compared to GPS or WWVH receivers, would need quite a bit of code skillz to keep the receiver from eating up all the battery life.

  9. i know of several infrastructure devices that rely on the timing signal to stay synchronized including timed valves, street light controllers, smart meters and some more thats slipping thought right now
    i cant begin to think of the cost of replacing or manually synchronizing these things compared to the tiny (as far as the US budget goes) ~$7 million of running these stations

    1. Yup. I remember when the Autochron annunciator in my local office switched over to using GPS. I asked the switchman what was gonna happen to the WWV(B?) receiver (thinking it might look neat in my bedroom), and he said they’d keep it around as a backup.

      I have to imagine there’s a ton of stuff not switched over yet, not because the GPS equipment isn’t trivially available, but because something about the legacy system is inextricably tied to the old signal, and replacing it would be a forklift upgrade of quite a large amount of gear.

  10. The problem here is, that there are many internal clocks in alarm systems, AC control, industrial control, etc., that rely on WWVB.
    Some of them are so old, that the owners don’t even remember that fact anymore.
    When the signal goes silent, those clocks will start to wander off, leading to all sorts of weird effects.
    And whats even more problematic is the fact, that some of those devices don’t even have the possibility to correct the time manually.
    And, the next major blackout after switching off WWVB could do a lot of damage.

  11. Probably a case of out of sight, out of mind. NIST never advertised it services, what it does or what it offers the community. These budget cuts were probably made by bureaucrats with no idea what the agency does.

  12. I don’t care about WWVB because I am in the UK, but I would be very disappointed if MSF60 was shut down. I chose to use that on a clock repair because I felt confident that it would carry on working for the next several decades (whereas GPS seems to always be up in the air. There are suggestions that the UK won’t be able to use Galileo after Brexit, the US military can turn of GPS at any time, etc etc.) In fact a clock that I made that depends on MSF60 was featured on here only a few weeks ago!. ( https://hackaday.com/2018/08/01/old-led-light-bulbs-give-up-filaments-for-spider-web-clock/ )
    Of course, giving out time data for free might seem unacceptably Socialist for some sectors of the US administration, so I can in fact imagine it being withdrawn.

  13. Well, the WWVB signal is simple and unencrypted. I see a hacking project. A home “WWVB” signal transmitter low power enough to meet FCC regulations that syncs with the internet.

  14. Interesting that all countries / regions seem to have their own “radio time service” standards and I guess there is no compatibility whatsoever. Would be a neat idea to maybe have an article offering an overview about them all over the world. In Germany, it’s DCF77 by the way and I don’t think that’ll be going anywhere soon.

    1. Agreed, that was going to be my two cents. These stations are used for more that time, they’re frequency standards that are used by anyone involved with radio. Not just hams, but people who enjoy shortwave listening use these as frequency standards and to check propagation. The $6.3 million spent is wasted many times over daily by the government, someone putting shrimp on a treadmill is significantly less important than dropping this program. GPS isn’t all that reliable and I have yet to see an Arduino or Pi with a clock stable enough to use as a time standard.

      What I would like to see is a list of all of the time stations worldwide and their operating frequencies, that would be helpful. The last Workd TV/Radio Handbook I saw didn’t do a good job of this and it’s not in the ARRL Handbook either.

  15. No one will miss them? My wristwatch and a home wall clocks are synced with WWV/WWVH and I’m sure many other people’s are, too. Yes, I still use a wristwatch for time and not a smartphone since I don’t have my nose in my smartphone all of the time. It’s easier just to glance at my watch. Eventually, GPS timing will be small, low power, and cheap enough to use in such things. Commercial users of WWV/WWVH have already switched to that timing source.

    1. Using the phone instead of a proper wristwatch is like a step back into the old time of pocket watches. Only without the watch chain to pull it out quickly, although some people could use their headphone cable as the have permanently plugged their ears with the headphones.

  16. clock sync comes from WWVB at 60 kHz I have not seen anything about it going dark so far as I ca tell it is the WWV and WWVH 5,10,15 MHz that are at risk. any real factual stuff out there? Ted

    1. Read the original post. The President’s budget proposal says, word-for-word:

      NIST will discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO. These radio stations transmit signals that are used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches, and may be used in other applications like appliances, cameras, and irrigation controllers.

      It doesn’t mention call signs, but doesn’t exclude any. WWVB seems to fit most closely the description of the station in Ft. Collins that transmits signals “used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches.”, but it sounds like all three of WWV WWVH, and WWVB are proposed to be on the chopping block. If they kept WWVB running, that wouldn’t sound to me like they intended to totally “discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO”.

      1. But wasn’t WWVB devalued as a frequency standard some time back? Maybe when they brought in the new modulation scheme. It seemed an acknowledgement that WWVB is getting lots of use setting clocks.

        It is confusing, WWVB not specifically mentioned, yet the station most likely to affect the most people if turned off. Something doesn’t balance.

        Michael

  17. Lots of good comments here!

    I’ll point out that this is the President’s proposed budget. Congress actually is in charge of the budget process, and while they may take suggestions from the Executive branch, they rarely follow the Executive’s proposals without change.

    Anything is still possible here, but my understanding is that Congress doesn’t want to cut NIST as much as the Executive branch does. So I believe there is a good chance WWV/WWVH/WWVB will continue transmissions for another year. Still, I’d encourage anyone interested to express their opinion to their legislators.

    If WWVB does go dark, I think I might rig up a low-power 60 kHz oscillator at home, and switch it on and off to mimic what my clocks are expecting. But I’d prefer not to do that.

  18. There goes the only use left for a Shortwave radio. Since cutting the north american service of the BBC it’s been downhill. Now it’s going dark.They might as well shut down the whole HF spectrum and do some broadband net on it. Oh, time signals would be part of it’s base. But now you’re going to deal with China, the Church, and hams.

  19. There they go again. The Federal Government in action. How much did they spend to upgrade WWVB so all the “atomic clocks” would work on the East Coast where the signal is weak? Now they want to pull the plug on everyone that has invested in these clocks. The government stupidly shut down all the LORAN stations a few years ago to save money, so now if GPS is lost due to attacks or solar storms, we have no reliable time or navigation source. Way to go Federal government. Is this the Deep State in action?

    1. Upgrade more a power bill issue. Actual transmitter upgrade was contribution of old Navy VLF equipment previously used to signal submarines. Think mentioned power bill may be more of an issue for NIST buget than any equipment costs. Ever consider how much it costs just to power a 100kw transmitter 24 hours a day? Now consider that few even wear watches anymore, let alone self setting models. Most use their phones for timekeeping. The self setting wallclocks will still work without WWVB… they just won’t be self correcting.
      Sad part is that buget saving isn’t likely to be returned to taxpayers. Will just get spent on something else.

  20. I have a couple of Radio Controlled Clocks, including one of these https://www.amazon.co.uk/Precision-AP110-Controlled-Temperature-Backlight/dp/B0041RRHLS I still have the instruction leaflet and it tells me it has Worldwide Usage and will sync to DCF (Germany), MSF (UK), WWVB (USA) and JJY (Japan). I agree with an earlier poster who suggested that there will be a lot of unexpected industrial uses of these radio time references. I know that here in the UK there are master clocks at railway stations and in signal boxes which rely on MSF60 to provide an accurate time references. I think people have forgotten that it was the railways that drove the adoption of Standard Time to protect against collisions! There will be a lot of other stuff which needs this.

    I live in a suburb of London, and was very surprised to find that my local electricity substation uses MSF as a time reference in-spite of also having a GSM module for remote monitoring. The MSF receiver means that it doesn’t have to be online all the time which provides a measure of security.

    I too don’t think this will get through your congress. Although this proposal is in the US, I have signed your petition, and if this ever becomes an issue in Europe, I hope some of you will sign ours!

  21. May this never come to pass! Engineers aren’t supposed to prefer any particular technology which is why I’m such a lousy engineer. I love tube radios, LW/LF/VLF, BBC Droitwich, time stations, along with all the new stuff: microcontrollers, FPGAs, etc.
    Because WWV and WWVB are valuable, I signed the (spam-inviting) petition. I did it partly because I’m a New England curmudgeon and general rascal but mostly because some technology is worth preserving. Besides this just looks like another case of “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” I guess that applies to the executive just as well. Kudos to the previous posters who have articulated so well the many good reasons for keeping these stations operating. My goodness, what the bloody hell is going on in that infernal (sausage factory) District of Columbia?

  22. I’m guessing Colorado and Hawaii don’t have Senators that will write them back into the budget, if they get cut…
    The government funds lots of dubious programs for decades because congress critters keep putting them into the next budget.

  23. The sky is not falling. The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2019, H.R.5952, was reported out of committee in with no cuts to NIST’s “Laboratory Programs,” which include the WWV stations. A later bill, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Reauthorization Act of 2018, was reported out of committee in June with no changes to laboratory programs. A Senate bill, the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2019, S. 3072, was reported out of committee in June with no changes in research funding levels. It will probably take several months before a final appropriations bill for NIST becomes law, but so far Congress has ignored the severe cuts of the original NIST proposal.

    https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5952
    https://science.house.gov/news/press-releases/sst-committee-approves-nist-reauthorization-act-2018
    https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3072/text

  24. …But I do not want they close WWV neither because I listen to it each morning to check if my clock received the WWVB signal that I receive in AM mode (not the new phase modulation) …I live in Quebec City… signal is very weak here, but most of the time the clock synchronize on full West wall !!

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