Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Are Standard Time/Frequency Radio Stations WWV/WWVH Going Away?

A buzz has started circulating in the ham radio community since it became apparent that in the proposed 2019 budget (summary online), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) mentioned in their proposed budget that they propose to cut:
$6.3 million supporting fundamental measurement dissemination, including the shutdown of NIST radio stations in Colorado and Hawaii
Radio stations WWV and WWVB are in Colorado while WWVH is in Hawaii.  WWV and WWVH have a lot of duplication between them, but Hawaii doesn't have an equivalent of WWVB.   Apparently, the first report on this was from a guy named Tom Witherspoon, K4SWL, who maintains The SWLing Post website; he's credited by the American Radio Relay League, the National Association for Ham Radio in their post on the subject. 

The SWLing Post doesn't address WWVB, the Very Low Frequency (VLF) station and probably the most useful of the NIST services.  If you have one of the so-called "Atomic Clocks" or watches, those synchronize to WWVB.  Around our house, we're probably over 90% clocks or watches that sync to WWVB. 

Comments on The SWLing Post seem to show the majority are in favor of keeping the time and frequency stations on the air, which I expect.  In reality, it's hard to conclude that they're really at risk.  First off, there are five frequencies: 2.5, 5, 10, 15, and 20 MHz on the air 24/7 at each location.  Prudence would dictate that if the designers intended to be on the air with over 99% availability that the stations would either have redundant transmitters or the ability to put a spare transmitter on the air quickly.  Could they be talking about cutting back the numbers of transmitters, the numbers of towers, or perhaps getting the realization of some actions already taken to improve reliability and reduce cost?  These sorts of details are simply not visible online.

NIST has some online photos and information on the stations.  There's a great deal of hardware there, exactly what they plan to eliminate to save money isn't clear.

It's also possible that someone in the NIST is playing some form of "Art of the Deal" and proposing this to get public outcry against budget cuts.

From Colorado Section Manager's blog.

The sign at the top says it's the Primary transmitter for the 2.5 MHz station, which automatically implies at least a secondary transmitter.  It's also a fairly recent vintage Rockwell Collins commercial High Frequency transmitter; I don't know the model number, but the color scheme of that orange stripe with the rest black dates as being post 2006.  It's not like this is a 1950s vintage transmitter hand built by the NIST (which was the NBS back then - the National Bureau of Standards).

So are WWV/WWVH going away?  I'm afraid I can't answer that either way.  It seems that something might be set to happen, but I can't track down enough details to say for sure.  There are other HF time/frequency standard stations, the main drawback is that their signals are going to be quite a bit weaker and less available in the mainland US.  The station with the most utility appears to be their VLF station, WWVB.  Since it has become so widely used commercially, it seems least likely to be affected, but that's just a guess.   Does anyone know any more?  Drjim, you're practically in their near field; heard anything? 


  1. This hit me pretty much by surprise, too. I remember when they moved from Green Belt, MD to Fort Collins, CO. I never noticed any change in their signal back then, but I didn't expect any.

    Here's the thread on it from the Flex Radio user forum:

    As several people pointed out, it's in the budget as a proposal to reduce costs.

    Frankly, if all they're going to save is a paltry six million bucks, why bother? I'm sure they enough slop in their other budgets to pick that up. Or maybe the Navy will fund continued operation. MANY ships-at-sea, both commercial and military, use those signals as references for their equipment.

    And yup, the towers are about 9 miles 'as the crow flies', and they're full-scale on every S-meter I own, even my little portables with the antenna fully collapsed.

    And while I heard them before at 2.5MHz, I never heard them on 25MHz, until about a year ago.

    Every "atomic clock" here locks on and synchronizes within minutes, even the one in the basement.

    1. Like I said last night, I figured that it's probably a negotiating stance. It's also possible that the stations could be moved from NIST to some other department. It does sound like a Department of Commerce thing, though, and NIST is in there. Maybe DOD could use them for something.

      It's true that $6Million is noise in the budget. With the current deficit, they spend $6M every minute and a half (I'm sure that's within a factor of 2 of current reality). Still, reality is that $6M means nothing to them, but the world to an individual or even a city. The other, other side of that is if we're truly going to go to a balanced budget (Aerosmith's 'Dream On' plays in the background), it's exactly the kind of thing they have to do.

      Florida is in fringe for WWVB. Most watches and clocks sync reliably, but it doesn't take much solar activity to cause them not to sync. We have one clock I call the Short Bus clock that has always been a little, well, retarded. It'll say it's in sync but not one of the five things it's displaying is right.

  2. I use two here in the wilds of eastern central South Dakota and they peg the built in receiving meters in both clocks and the one in the travel trailer anywhere I go.

  3. When my newish Timex fogged up after being exposed to hand washing, I looked at the Casio brand of solar recharging and time synchronizing watches.
    I carefully explained the virtues to my wife, and after I concluded my sales pitch and explanation of radio time signals, she laughed and said, "you're buying it because it has the word atomic in the title."
    She knows me so well.
    I hate assuming, but I would think my watch uses the signals the post mentions.

    1. Rest assured that atomic clocks are sill much bigger than watch sized. Even if you used your entire arm to support the atomic clock.

      Casio has a line of "atomic watches" called Wave Ceptors - as in "radio wave receptor". They use those radio signals. I have a Casio that's about 12 years old. Aside from some dings and scratches, it's perfect.

  4. When I first read this, I wondered about the viability of other references. Specifically, it seems as if a lot of stuff gets a time reference from ntp. Most of our "connected gadgets" do, and I suspect that the cellular network as well as most trading networks (both of which are dependent on an accurate time reference) do.

    NTP is based on a network of cooperating servers, which appear to extract time data from GPS, as well as WWVB (US government terrestrial radio) and DCF77 (German government terrestrial radio).

    (We can start an entire thread on the vulnerability of GPS, easy. Now I'm wondering what it uses as a time reference as well.)

    Take away WWVB, and that system is down to 2 time references.

    For the average radio operator, it would seem that losing WWV as a frequency reference is difficult to replace. It's also useful as a propagation reference, but that can be replaced with other things.

    Interesting problem...if government can't do this, either due to budgetary constraint, or other considerations, what can (or should) take their place?

    1. That's the thing: I don't think those stations are really useful as standard time stations to the accuracy those networks want. With ionospheric propagation, accuracy is limited to the milliseconds and I think that's loose for modern stuff.

      The GPS system is corrected to levels that show up due to relativity (I did an explanation here). Without correcting for relativistic effects, GPS positions would go off 7 miles per day.

      If the government didn't do it, could the private sector step in? Assuming they'd charge for every time/frequency check?

      Interesting question to think about. My initial take is that WWVB is the most economically useful station, and companies that make atomic clocks and other things that use it may end up contributing to keep their products useful. If WWVB goes away, I'm going to need a bunch of new clocks.

    2. They're not useful as time references. GPS being "available" means that you can buy everything down to a GPS Disciplined Oscillator for precise timing. (I think the street price is 300 bucks or so). A clock good enough to calculate relativistic time dilation is good enough for most terrestrial work.

      If you don't need that, there the official NIST page which will correct for expected network delays and give you pretty good time.

      As for the "atomic clocks" ... Can you transmit a low power time signal on that frequency driven by either GPS or NIST's web page. (I don't know what the rules are for low power in that band.

      Anyone can set up a beacon with a little coordination, no? For the Radio Propagation issue.

    3. Can you transmit a low power time signal on that frequency driven by either GPS or NIST's web page?

      Not as it stands now; that frequency is allocated to NIST for that service. Not to say it couldn't be changed, but it would take a while. Plus, there are the technical difficulties of setting up a transmitter for 60kHz - where a quarter wave monopole would be 3900 feet tall. The WWVB transmitters are big budget things.

      Beacon networks on frequencies allocated to hams are out there already, but I know nothing about the rules for those.

  5. CHU 7.335 MHz formerly. Now, 7.85 MHz is still available.