Shhh! The scientists are listening to space!
Green Bank, West Virginia, is a tech-savvy teenager’s nightmare. In this tiny town in Pocahontas County—population 143, as of the last census—wireless signals are illegal. No cell phones. No WiFi. No Bluetooth. No electronic transmitters at all. Recently, a store even had to remove their automatic doors because they caused too much interference.
The remote town is smack in the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile stretch of land designated by the FCC to protect two government radio telescopes from man-made interference. The rules, though, are most strict in Green Bank’s neck of the woods. So strict, actually, that someone roves the streets listening for verboten wireless signals.
It’s necessary, though. The town is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world—and arguably our most powerful link to the cosmos. Scientists there listen to radio energy that has journeyed light years, unlocking secrets about how the stars and galaxies formed. A rogue radio signal could prevent potential discoveries, discoveries that could answer big questions about how the universe ticks.
Green Bank, West Virginia: A Visitors Guide
In Green Bank, finding cell phone service is the only thing harder than finding another human. A flip of the radio dial won’t reward you, either—it’s all a steady whoosh of white noise. If you’re lucky, though, you may catch a faint flicker of the only AM broadcasting from the area, hosted by the Allegheny Mountain Radio Network.
First responders are the only residents allowed to use communication radios, although they’re limited to short-distance CB radios. If you get lost, one pay phone is there to rescue you—a pay phone, mind you, that people actually use. And you can search the web there, too, but you’ll have to get used to the grating ping of a dial-up modem again. (Although some homes have ethernet, it’s generally not worth it for companies to bring in anything faster.)
Surprisingly, a ban on all things wireless hasn’t driven residents away; it’s actually drawn people all across the United States to settle down. Sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity—a disease supposedly caused by wireless signals, but dismissed by the scientific community—have moved into the electronic dead space.
If you're in Green Bank and desperately need to update social media, you’re in luck: Recently, engineers at AT&T brought cellular connectivity to the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, which lies in the center of the quiet zone. Doing this was no easy task, because they needed to get the radio wave interference down to extremely low levels. In a post on AT&T’s website, the director of the site, Dr. Karen O’Neil, explained the problems involved. To get approval, AT&T installed 180 antennas around the resort and 3 miles of fiberoptic cable so that the signals don’t need to travel very far. Which is good, because they also had to lower the power—according to O’Neil, your phone ordinarily emits 500 milliwatts when you’re using it. But if you’re skiing the slopes, that goes down automatically to less than a milliwatt.
A version of this story appeared in 2013; it has been updated to add new information.