Ask Not for Whom the 60 kHz Bell Tolls
September 11, 2018 7:38 AM   Subscribe

The Trump administration proposes, in its Fiscal 2019 budget to Congress, cutting $26.6 million and 136 jobs from NIST’s fundamental measurements, quantum science and measurement dissemination activities. That includes the closure of shortwave stations WWV, WWVB (Fort Collins, Colorado) and WWVH (Kekaha, Hawaii) which have provided a free audio and digital time signal to the Northern Hemisphere for over 50 years.

The closure of the two facilities would save US taxpayers 6.3 million dollars a year. While other over-the-air sources of time exist, such as GPS, shortwave signals use less power and can reach areas that the GPS signal cannot.

The removal of the time signal will also mean millions of clocks and other devices around the northern hemisphere would begin to lose time and fall silent. WWV/WWVH also broadcasts additional information such as marine storm warnings, GPS satellite health reports, and specific information about solar activity and radio propagation conditions.

A petition has been assembled to lobby the White House to keep the stations in the budget.
posted by JoeZydeco (44 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
why.
posted by dbx at 7:43 AM on September 11 [14 favorites]


why.

Accurate timekeeping is a liberal conspiracy. The true conservative keeps their own time
posted by dng at 7:44 AM on September 11 [53 favorites]


One of my favorite childhood memories is waking up every Sunday morning to hear my dad check his watch with WWV.
posted by elphaba at 7:45 AM on September 11 [13 favorites]


The true conservative keeps their own time

It "fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings... as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day... I would say it's my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked."
posted by BungaDunga at 7:53 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


A petition has been assembled to lobby the White House to keep the stations in the budget.

Surely the more useful people to lobby are in Congress, right? Maybe whoever is in the pocket of Big Timekeeper. Trump can propose whatever budget he wants but if Congress decides to fund it anyway it's funded.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:55 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]




Same fuckers who decided to cut the Coast Guard budget by 10%, then corrected it when someone discovered that it's actually a branch of the Armed Forces? Yeah.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:01 AM on September 11 [17 favorites]


The closure of the two facilities would save US taxpayers 6.3 million dollars a year.

Or approximately what it costs to run an aircraft carrier strike group for a single day.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:04 AM on September 11 [34 favorites]


One of my favorite childhood memories is waking up every Sunday morning to hear my dad check his watch with WWV.

Oh FYI, just in case you need that nostalgia hit and your radio is in the attic you can listen over the phone!

Dial (303) 499-7111 for WWV, and (808) 335-4363 for WWVH.

I have no idea if this service will also disappear with the stations, but it's safe to assume it will.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:08 AM on September 11 [11 favorites]


The closure of the two facilities would save US taxpayers 6.3 million dollars a year.

Or approximately what it costs to run an aircraft carrier strike group for a single day.


And how many Presidential golf outings is that?
posted by NoMich at 8:10 AM on September 11 [12 favorites]


And how many Presidential golf outings is that?

20 months in and we've spent about $77 million on golf outings. So $6.3 million is about 6 weeks of the presidential golfing budget.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:18 AM on September 11 [36 favorites]


Same fuckers who decided to cut the Coast Guard budget by 10%, then corrected it when someone discovered that it's actually a branch of the Armed Forces?

Yeah, I'm secretly hoping that there is someone, somewhere in the military sends a little note over to the White House saying "psst...fyi...we kind of neeeeeed this to keep running" and then the issue is moot.

Over on Hackaday some people have speculated something interesting: what if there's some old forgotten deadman's switch out there that assumes if WWV is down, we've all been nuked?
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:21 AM on September 11 [33 favorites]


so, just to clarify, it is NIST itself that proposed cutting the service in it's budget request, not the administration. There is some speculation that this is the "Washington Monument" strategy.

lots of discussion and tooth gnashing in the Time-Nuts Archives for August
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:31 AM on September 11 [16 favorites]


"what if there's some old forgotten deadman's switch out there..."

Please let it be a Lost-style timeline reset. Pleasepleasepleaseplease.
posted by Molesome at 8:36 AM on September 11 [12 favorites]


Man...I've always said shortwave radio was going to be my retirement hobby. Hope it's still around then.
posted by Miko at 9:15 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Ask Not for Whom the 60 kHz Bell Tolls

60 kHz is long wave, not short wave.
Short wave is 1,700 kHz and up.

Source: the wikipedia page for long wave (AKA low frequency) even mentions the time signals the article is about.
posted by w0mbat at 9:16 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Yes, yes...but doesn’t anyone here understand that one of his cronys needs a big fat corporate bonus this year? It's like...how insensitive are you people?
posted by sexyrobot at 9:27 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Fortunately, President Trump's budgets have been even more ignored on Capital Hill than Obama's were -- the Obama years featured stalemates where Congress eventually gave up and held the various agencies' funding constant from year to year, while this year programs that Trump wants to gut are actually getting more money. So just because the proposed budget would eliminate those jobs doesn't mean they're actually in direct danger.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:27 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


The true conservative keeps their own time

It "fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings... as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day... I would say it's my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked."


Yet it's always stuck in 1950.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:31 AM on September 11 [10 favorites]


The true conservative keeps their own time

Like the truth, like good versus bad, sometimes you can just feel it. Like, I know exactly when it's lunch time, because I feel it in my gut. I don't need big government to tell me when it's lunch time!
posted by rh at 9:38 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


I know, fuck Trump, but I think it's a mistake to see this through a political lens. Government absolutely should shut down old and obsolete services. There was similar hand-wringing when LORAN was shut down, including foaming-at-the mouth criticism of Obama threatening national security with his dastardly plan of removing the ancient, inaccurate navigation system no one used anymore.

The question is whether these systems are obsolete. The argument with LORAN is that it was an important backup system for if GPS goes down. Similar argument for WWV, although there are other options for time keeping. The other thing nice about WWV is you can build a super cheap receiver to help a computer keep time with it, and most importantly one that works even with an antenna that's inside. GPS time requires you have a clear line of sight to the sky. Also WWV is still built into a fair number of consumer products in active use today. Maybe nothing mission critical, but people are gonna be mad when their bedside alarm clock breaks.

(Also WWV is a useful signal not just for absolute time, but for a precise and accurate frequency. It's handy to sync other oscillators to.)
posted by Nelson at 9:43 AM on September 11 [11 favorites]


are you fucking kidding me with this shit god damn it
posted by odinsdream at 9:58 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


I can't wait for this shitshow of an imbecilic administration to finally end.

In other news (NYT today), Trump aims to make it easier for the oil industry to release methane into the atmosphere... *facepalm*
posted by oxidizer at 10:37 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


So that's how my alarm clock always knows what time it is!
posted by slogger at 10:40 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Yeah, if GPS penetrated better, I'd be pretty ambivalent about this. I mean, I know WWV receivers are cheap, but GPS receivers are getting pretty stupid cheap too these days. But GPS is pretty much useless indoors, where WWV shines for these sorts of simple automatic clocks.
posted by Kyol at 10:57 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


One of the methods NIST itself recommends to harden the security of a network of computers is to make sure that all devices on the network are synchronized to the same trusted network time source, one with as low a strata value as possible (GPS and WWV are defined as strata 0). I've found that using an NTP device that syncs to a WWV broadcast is an excellent way to run one's own strata 1 NTP server and manage the risk of a bad actor manipulating the time your facility runs on in order to facilitate an attack on data, not to mention just having an objective time source for all operations.

So I suspect that yes, WWV signing off is a Washington Monument strategy like Dr. Twist mentions above.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:08 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


One of my favorite childhood memories is waking up every Sunday morning to hear my dad check his watch with WWV.

Yeah, mine to; only my father'd always be listening to it at night, for setting the Grandfather clock he'd built from a kit. Break his heart to hear this news, although Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish makes an excellent point about congressional Realpolitik.
posted by Rash at 11:42 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


So that's how my alarm clock always knows what time it is!

And also millions of other consumer, commercial and scientific devices that would stop working if WWV were discontinued. Consumer devices are often marketed as "atomic clocks." However the atomic (cesium) clocks are not in your device but are located at WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado and they transmit their precise times to remote devices like your alarm clock to keep them synced up. Usually your device will sync up once a day, often at local midnight, only turning on its radio receiver for a short period to save battery power.
posted by JackFlash at 11:50 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


the Grandfather clock he'd built from a kit

THIS IS A THING?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! brb getting a new hobby
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:50 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


GPS time is *way way more complicated* electronically.

It's not even... the same... problem space. I can't fucking deal with the mendacity here. It's such an enormously useful resource and public good that's cheap as fuck to operate and maintain.
posted by odinsdream at 1:10 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]


Cheapskate government.
If it doesn't make HIM money but still provides a service, scrap it.

One way to go down in history I suppose!!
posted by Burn_IT at 1:20 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Accurate timekeeping is a liberal conspiracy. The true conservative keeps their own time

I know this is mostly a joke, but yeah, that kind of self-reliance and not being dependent on a collective/government solution is totally in keeping with a certain kind of conservative thought. There will be actual people out there who think that (though not in such explicitly specific terms).
posted by Dysk at 1:36 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I don't know about the deadman switch thing, but it could create some interesting vulnerabilities... if systems depend on a time signal on a specific frequency, and that frequency is now silent, there's an opportunity to use a very low-powered transmitter to fake the signal, and introduce timing attacks into systems — maybe even air-gapped ones.

It wouldn't surprise me if there are parts of the electrical grid or emergency broadcast system that use the shortwave time transmission for synchronization.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:36 PM on September 11 [15 favorites]


My understanding is that a lot of clock modules that sync to WWV use less accurate quartz crystals, since they're operating under the assumption that they'll be re-set at least every few days.
posted by ckape at 2:05 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


As much as I love and have nostalgic fondness for WWV and recognize that it's a vanishingly small line item in a national budget . . $6.3M does seem kind of nuts. Even if you're buying the best commercial atomic clock in the world every few years, hiring five PhDs to maintain it, and paying the power bill for a MW broadcast station, it's hard to see how you reach that total. I'll do it for $3M, if you let our lab keep the extra.

Fuck you, world, for making me agree with Trump's administration about anything.
posted by eotvos at 2:18 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Some AM radio stations have time signals embedded in their transmissions. My grandfather once knew of a hospital which tuned their backup generators to 60Hz by having someone hit a stopwatch when they heard WBZ's time signal.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:18 PM on September 11


Vandals. They have no ideology other than sheer vandalism. Literally like children.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:47 PM on September 11


> "$6.3M does seem kind of nuts … it's hard to see how you reach that total. I'll do it for $3M"
Antenna efficiency at LF is terrible, and gets worse the lower the frequency. A few % wouldn't be out of the ballpark @ 60kHz, so for WWVB's 70kW ERP you're probably looking at something like at least 1400kW transmitter output power. 2MW or more wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.

A quick, very conservative, estimate for power costs alone would be $1.5M annually for just WWVB. And the proposal / quoted savings is for the whole of WWV - WWVB on 60kHz, WWV on 2.5, 5, 10, 15, & 20MHz, and WWVH on 2.5, 5, 10, & 15 MHz. Granted, the SW broadcasts are lower power (2.5, 5, & 10KW ERP) & have much higher antenna efficiencies (likely approaching 90% at highest frequencies), but I suspect there won't be much change out of that $3M once the electricity bill is paid…
posted by Pinback at 4:12 PM on September 11 [11 favorites]


Here's a PDF from the NIST giving more technical information about WWV, WWVB and WWVH than you ever wanted to know. Lots of pics too.

For example, they show the WWVB transmitters, three of them, each one in a steel cabinet that is 24 feet long, 3 feet deep and 6.5 feet tall (page 25). Two of these transmitters are operated simultaneously, outputting 37 KW each into a pair of antennas with 69% efficiency for 50 KW of effective power. Each transmitter consumes 140 KVA input power. That's a lot of excess heat to get rid of. This ain't your local radio station.

And if you want to take over the contract for $6.5 million, they even list all of the daily, weekly, monthly and annual tasks required. Such as changing the light bulbs on the 400 foot towers annually. Keep in mind you would have to maintain two facilities, one in Colorado and one in Hawaii.
posted by JackFlash at 6:08 PM on September 11 [14 favorites]


Someone needs to compile a “what do we need that for?” list of everything that’s gotten cut simply because you-know who doesn’t understand it. It would be lengthy, I’d wager. According to Woodward, it could have included US military presence on the Korean Peninsula, because “what do we need that for?”. These are truly terrifying times.
posted by hilberseimer at 6:14 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


At the Tone is a great historical audio collection of WWV stations from radio producer/field recorder Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
posted by birdsong at 6:27 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting that, JackFlash. 69% is much better than I would've thought. As the PDF then goes on to say, "In the world of LF broadcasting, this is an impressive figure".
posted by Pinback at 7:03 PM on September 11


WWVB, since the wavelength is 5000 meters, it isn't practical to build a quarter wavelength antenna. Instead they use a technique known as top loading, in which they use a T-shaped antenna with a network of horizontal wires strung between insulated towers and connected to the relatively short central vertical antenna. This capacitive hat increases the efficiency of the short vertical antenna. (page 68). To match this capacitance there must be a giant inductive loading coil at the base of the antenna in the "helix house" (page 66). This helps the antenna match the 50 ohm output impedance of the transmitters. Pretty neat stuff. They are able to cover most of North America, well into northern Canada and down into South America.
posted by JackFlash at 7:54 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


Whoa. This caused me to hurriedly check into LORAN. Whew, looks like that may still be limping along with plans for eLORAN, thanks to vulnerabilities in GPS.

They used to have these cool, great-big antenna setups all over, out in the middle of nowhere. (I'll admit to digging those radio-antenna-light sentinels of the night whilst driving out in the Big Empty.)
posted by Twang at 8:37 PM on September 11


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