The National Radio Quiet Zone: An Escape from a Wireless World


177422666Do you ever wish you could just “get away from it all” on vacation—leave your cellphone and tablet behind, and try to find the true relaxation that only the absence of push notifications, tweets, Facebook posts, and email can provide? If, like some of us, you don’t have the willpower to go cold turkey, you might want to find a vacation spot where using your devices isn’t an option. The question is, can such a paradise even exist?

Earlier this month, we talked about the 15% of Americans who are still offline. Among the many possible explanations we discussed for this phenomenon, none of them was that this 15% could be living in a “quiet zone” where some of the modern conveniences of technology are actually banned by law—that just doesn’t seem realistic in today’s culture of hyper-connectivity.

But what if there was a place where state and federal laws banned Wi-Fi and cellular communications? A sort of “pre-too-much-technology” preserve, protected as a national jewel like Yosemite or Yellowstone? As it turns out, there already is… but it wasn’t created just so you can escape emails and calls while you are on vacation.

The National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) stretches over 13,000 square miles, encompassing parts of both Virginia and West Virginia, and was set up by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1958 to create a buffer zone for technical scientific operations. If you venture deep into the heart of the NRQZ, you’ll find the small town of Green Bank, West Virginia—home to 143 people, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT).

As GBT Operations Manager, Michael Holstine told NBC Nightly News, “[With the telescope], we’ve been able to peer back to just after the Big Bang, 13.9 billion to 14 billion years ago…We need quiet to gather all the signals that are being supplied to us by the universe.”

This is a case of extreme technology—to listen to signals from across the universe, scientists need more than just your basic satellite dish. At 17 million pounds, the GBT is 485 feet high with a 2.3-acre dish; it’s the largest fully steerable telescope in the world and the largest moving object on land. Picture a completely moveable Washington Monument with a football stadium around it, and you start to get the idea.

As you can probably imagine, trying to listen to the universe is complicated enough without being surrounded by all the “radio frequency interference” being given off by electronic devices much closer to home, so the NRQZ is in place to make the task a little less difficult.

How do you make sure its quiet enough to hear the universe? Inside the NRQZ (which, by the way, is larger than the entire state of Maryland) the FCC requires that the construction of any new transmitters (whether for radio, cellular, television signals, etc.) coordinate with the observatory to make sure the transmitters don’t interfere with the telescope.

As you get closer to the GBT, West Virginia state law under the Radio Astronomy Zoning Act places further regulations on interferences within 10 miles of the observatory. To make sure the telescope’s operations aren’t hindered, employees from the NRAO patrol the area around the GBT weekly to check for possible interference from Wi-Fi hotspots, cell phones, or anything else that might be giving off too strong of a signal.

Instead of cellphones and iPads, residents of the NRQZ use landline phone services and pay phones (both are linked in case you don’t know what those are) for day-to-day communication. Both are relics from what my parents’ generation often calls “simpler times,” but if you talk to Karen O’Neil, who oversees the GBT, she’ll tell you that keeping things quiet is anything but simple. As she told NPR, “If you think back to 1956 when this site was first built, there were issues with radio noise, but most of those issues came about through cars and spark plugs and power lines. And now we’re living in a society where everything is wireless.”

Thanks to NRQZ and the legislation that keeps the skies quiet, the NRQZ is truly a one of a kind place. Whether you are a radio astronomer looking for the perfect place listen to ancient signals in the universe or just trying to actually get away from your email, you might want to check it out.

About John Wilson

John Wilson is an analytical communications professional, with a passion for sifting through data for compelling stories and insights. John started his career on Capitol Hill and chased his love of data and communications out of politics and into opinion research and public relations. John graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the George Washington University where he studied political science and statistics. Beyond work, John loves the mountains and can be found skiing or hiking in both the Sierras and the Rockies.
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