For decades, signals generated by a rural Kauai radio station have been used by a giant nexus of clocks across the Pacific to synchronize the precise time.
From mariner radios to wall-hung timepieces in far-flung South Africa, the 1940s-era government station’s time and frequency calibrations help maintain order in an increasingly interconnected world.
Now, the tiny radio outpost of WWVH is in jeopardy of going out of business.
NIST radio station WWVH broadcasts time and frequency information 24 hours a day, seven days a week to listeners worldwide. The station is located on a 30-acre site in Kekaha at Kokole Point on Kauai.
President Donald Trump’s proposed 2019 budget would wipe out an annual $6.3 million appropriation that supports the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s 70-year-old broadcast at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kekaha, as well as its two sister stations in Fort Collins, Colorado.
All told, 136 jobs — including four on Kauai — and more than a quarter-billion dollars in NIST funding are in danger of being slashed in the next federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
First on Maui, and now on Kauai, the WWVH station broadcasts a digital time code capable of setting radio-controlled clocks around the world. These clocks have an antenna to receive and decode the message, which is accurate to the exact second. Once a clock has synchronized itself to the code, it applies a mathematical correction to display the local time.
The radio stations in Hawaii and Colorado used to be the predominant source for timing information throughout North America. They now serve an important role as a back-up for the Global Positioning System satellites, which disseminate time codes more accurately than a radio broadcast.
GPS is now the dominant source of America’s time standard, ensuring punctilious, time-stamped transactions everywhere from the New York Stock Exchange to the corner store ATM. Far beyond setting clocks, these time codes have a broad range of uses, including making sure that your house receives power from the electric grid. If the radio broadcasts in Hawaii and Colorado shut down, telecommunications systems that still rely on radio-powered signals would presumably switch over to GPS.
This precision comes at a price, however. Unlike broadcast radio, GPS is vulnerable to threats like cyber warfare.
Despite the looming budget cuts, NIST is preparing a Department of Homeland Security proposal that illustrates how radio signals could function as an important stand-in if GPS falters.
The WWVH broadcast station was in Kihei, Maui, from 1948 to 1971 before relocating to Kauai.
National Institute of Standards and Technology
WWVH started in Kihei, Maui, in November 1948. The station catered to a critical need for time precision among military members at sea, as well as weather information and storm and emergency alerts.
For two decades, it was housed in an oceanfront building now occupied by the U.S. Coast Guard. During this period the station added its own voice announcements.
In July 1971, WWVH relocated to Kauai’s PMRF naval base in the red dirt-dusted town of Kekaha. Two years later, the broadcast launched a telephone time-of-day service that received approximately 200,000 daily calls from all over the world.
In the mid-1970s, WWVH debuted a QSL card celebrating a pivotal moment in Hawaiian culture. A QSL card is a decorative form of written confirmation of successful telecommunication between broadcaster and listener. The size of a postcard, QSL cards helped radio broadcasts like WWVH delineate their user base.
The WWVH card, at the time a popular collector’s item, depicted the Hokulea sailing canoe during its historic maiden voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti as part of the bicentennial celebration of American independence. They were mailed to listeners who sent reception reports, generally from locations outside the United States.
WWVH has received reports from as far away as South Africa, 12,000 miles from Hawaii.
From Time Of Day To Storm Alerts
This QSL card was sent to listeners who confirmed reception of the WWVH broadcasts from Kauai in 1976.
Atomic clocks determine the official time. On Kauai, WWVH keeps a commercial atomic clock made by Hewlett-Packard.
Periodically the clock must be manually calibrated back to the standard time scale. This negates the compounding effect of the loss of what amounts to a small fraction of a second of error. Recalibration is necessary for all atomic clocks.
The tiniest disruption once had the capacity to trip up a power plant or interfere with a high-speed financial transaction. Today these telecommunications systems mostly rely on GPS satellites to relay the time signal.
The Pulse Of Wrist Watches, Mariner Radios
It’s estimated that more than 20 million radio-powered wall clocks are still in use in the United States, according to NIST’s Lowe.
“If you think about it, our entire world is based on frequency,” said Lowe, who started his career in 1985 at what was formerly known as the National Bureau of Standards. “From the AM radio to the cell phone that you use, basically everything runs on frequency.”
On Kauai, a half-dozen high frequency broadcast antennas measuring anywhere from 30 to 100 feet high surround the small, modest station. They resemble extra large versions of the old car antenna.
They are no longer state-of-the-art. But they’re not yet obsolete.
“My wrist watch picks up the radio station signal to set the time and almost every wall clock at my house does the same thing,” Lowe said. “If you’re a mariner out in the middle of the Pacific somewhere, then you have a WWVH radio station, too, because that’s your source for weather and storm alerts.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Will you help us?
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?