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06 March 2020

Green Bank, W.Va.: No Cell Signal, No Wi-Fi, No Problem. Growing Up Inside America’s ‘Quiet Zone’

No Cell Signal, No Wi-Fi, No Problem. Growing Up Inside America’s ‘Quiet Zone’
By Dan Levinnytimes.com, 6 March 2020 (extracts from article)

Photographs by Annie Flanagan

Green Bank, W.Va., is home to a telescope so large that it requires near radio silence to operate, a technological restriction that has created a unique kind of modern childhood.

The Green Bank Telescope, partially obscured by fog in
Green Bank, W.Va.
... Welcome to Green Bank, population 143, where Wi-Fi is both unavailable and banned and where cellphone signals are nonexistent.

The near radio silence is a requirement for those living close to the town’s most prominent and demanding resident, the Green Bank Observatory, home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. To protect the sensitive equipment from interference, the federal government in 1958 established the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area near the state’s border with Virginia.

The observatory’s telescope “could detect your phone on Saturn in airplane mode,” states a sign outside its science center building, but is rendered much weaker if anyone uses electronics that emit radio waves. For those who live within 10 miles of the observatory, the limitations also include a ban on Bluetooth devices and microwaves, unless they are contained in a metal box, known as a Faraday cage, which blocks electromagnetic fields.

Nearly 15 million Americans live in sparsely populated communities where there is no broadband internet service at all, a stark digital divide across America between those with access to uber-fast connections and those with none.

But in Green Bank, where the restrictions are mandatory, the quiet zone has in many ways created a time warp in the mountainous region. Phone booths loom near barns and stand guard on rural roads. Paper maps are still common. Here, people are less distracted by the technologies that have come to dominate 21st-century American life.

At a time when nearly 60 percent of American teens say they have been bullied or harassed online, and studies have found links between social media use and teen mental health problems, the digital limitations around Green Bank have created a unique kind of modern childhood, providing a glimpse into what it means to grow up without the constant buzz of texting and social media.

The quiet, too, has given young people here a greater appreciation for fostering in-real-life connections, the great outdoors and personal privacy. Even teenagers who are able to use Wi-Fi at home — in the quiet zone but outside its 10-mile core — said they spend less time online than most people their ages, and those who have moved to the quiet zone said they have discovered a newfound sense of adventure...


While most Green Bank residents have not known daily life outside the quiet zone, the broader region has attracted a group of people who crave an escape from the noise of modern-day America. Over the years, the area has become a refuge for some who believe they suffer from a widely disputed medical condition known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which they claim is caused by radiation from cell towers and Wi-Fi.

Last summer, Jason Baxter visited the region with his wife, who he said suffered from an allergy to radio waves that made her unable to get out of bed. Mr. Baxter said his wife’s health improved dramatically in the quiet zone. “I had my wife back,” he said. “She wasn’t sick anymore.”

A few weeks later, they moved with their 13-year-old daughter, Jenna, from Connecticut into a cabin near Green Bank. The cabin has battery-powered LED lights, a wood-burning stove and no electricity or screens of any kind...


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