By Lucas Reilly
Green Bank, W. Va, is a tech-savvy teenager’s nightmare. In this tiny town in Pocahontas County — population 143 — wireless signals are illegal. No cell phones. No WiFi. No radio. No Bluetooth. No electronic transmitters at all. You’re not even allowed to cozy up to an electric blanket.
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 Federal Communications Commission 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 a policeman 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.
Don’t even try using your cell phone in Green Bank. Finding 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 station around, 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.
Surprisingly, a ban on all things wireless hasn’t driven residents away. It’s actually drawn people from 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.