Do you have a watch or clock that is self-setting and “atomic” in nature?
Yep, so do I. A significant portion of them. In point of fact, despite the fact that I could be considered somewhat of a tech geek, I have no idea how many of the normal, everyday devices–devices that I rely on every day–are included in this category… However, I might find out very soon.
“Atomic” clocks, which can set themselves, are something that many of us have in our homes. In point of fact, the vast majority of wall clocks, alarm clocks, and watches, not to mention weather stations, cameras, and maybe a variety of other devices, contain a built-in receiver that can automatically calibrate itself. And all of these sync to a radio station in Fort Collins, Colorado, called NIST Time Signal Station WWVB, which you probably have never heard of despite the fact that you listen to it more than any other station.
The problem is as follows: WWVB, the atomic clock time signal station that synchronizes time devices, could be decommissioned the next year if a presidential budget request is granted in the proposed form.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) runs a time station known as WWVB. This station obtains its time from a network of atomic clocks, which have a frequency inaccuracy of less than one part in 1012, and WWVB is the source of the time.
In what degree of precision does this time signal operate? Incredible in its degree of precision.
And that’s a very good thing, considering how many of the things we rely on constantly (but most of the time don’t give any thought to) are dependent on it. The constant 60 kHz carrier wave that WWVB produces is used, among other things, by self-setting “atomic” clocks that are used by consumers and industry. Numerous consumer electronics, ranging from cameras to controls for irrigation systems, feature built-in WWVB receivers. These electronics are dependent on the extremely precise time that the station provides.
According to the NIST:
People who spend their days in schools, offices, stores, factories, and other public facilities in North America get the time of their lives from clocks that are controlled by a single radio station that very few people have ever heard of. That radio station is WWVB in Ft. Collins, Colorado, which is operated by PML’s Time and Frequency Division.
The most recent estimates suggest that there are at least 50 million radio-controlled clocks currently in use (along with a few million wristwatches), all of which receive accurate time from WWVB’s 60 kHz broadcast. Furthermore, it is estimated that approximately one million new commercial radio-controlled products are sold each year.[…]
If you are a regular reader of the SWLing Post, you are likely already aware that the NIST Presidential Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2019 includes a call to shut down WWVB as well as two shortwave radio NIST time stations, WWV and WWVH.
If WWVB were to be shut down, what would happen?
After WWVB is shut down, your atomic clock-synchronized devices will no longer be accurate, and they will not be able to switch from Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time automatically if the proposed budget is approved in its current form.
They will continue to function, even if they will not have a self-setting function…
Consequently, like Thomas, the Tank Engine’s ever-present station master, Sir Topham Hatt, would put it, “confusion and delays” were the end result in the long run.
And if the shutdown does take place, there may not even be a public notice stating that fact. This is a very unpleasant possibility.
But how does any of this pertain to us in any way?
We hardly even notice these devices here in North America because they are so ingrained in our everyday lives, and many customers most certainly believe that they are controlled by the internet because of this misconception.
They are an often-overlooked component of our lives that play an important role in keeping us going – quite literally. We won’t be able to estimate how many of the millions of gadgets on which we rely will be disrupted by a shutdown until it actually takes place. Even though there may be other (perhaps less accurate) options to the time-setting provision of this station, such as those given by the Navy and the Internet, we will not have access to the one that we rely on the most because it is the most accurate.
When it comes down to it…
There is a possibility that we will soon lose access to something that is mutually ours and that enables us to keep better time but that we also rely on. I strongly encourage anyone who has strong feelings about maintaining the broadcast of the atomic clock signal to get in touch with their local legislators and sign this petition at the White House.
Otherwise? How things turn out is up to time. Or not, depending on the circumstances.