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WiFi Is Illegal in This American Town

WiFi Is Illegal in This American Town. (And Yes, People Actually Live There.)

It’s the first of October and Route 92 into town is lined with trees dressed with greens, oranges, and yellows. Autumn is refreshingly crisp and colorful here in Green Bank, West Virginia. The road winds and curves past a convenience store, a school, a library, and a post office. There are no shopping plazas, fast food restaurants, office buildings, or apartment complexes here. There’s also no cell service.
What is here, though, is one of the world’s most important facilities for the understanding of our universe.

Right off of the road and nestled in a valley naturally protected by the Allegheny Mountains is the Green Bank Observatory. It opened in 1958 as the United States’ first national astronomy observatory and remains today a crucial facility in the field of radio astronomy with a number of active telescopes, including the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT.
Over the last six-plus decades, the discoveries made at this observatory have come to define astronomy. Here, telescopes have found black holes, pulsars, radiation belts, and gravitational waves. Just last month, researchers at the GBO uncovered the most massive neutron star ever detected.


Green Bank is also where the serious search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) research was born. In 1960, Frank Drake started Project Ozma here, the first U.S. government-funded attempt to listen for extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s also where he wrote his famed equation about the possibility of worlds other than ours. And SETI work is still ongoing at Green Bank. Earlier this year, one million gigabytes of SETI data collected over the last three years was released to the public, making it the largest trove ever of its kind.
Rain falls on an October morning at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank.
Julia Rendleman
All of this has been accomplished simply by listening closely and deeply to the sky above this beautiful, rural town.

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But to do this crucial work, compromises have to be made. “The signals we detect from space are extremely faint,” says Harshal Gupta, the National Science Foundation program officer for the Green Bank Observatory. “A source of close-by, man-made radiofrequency can completely overwhelm these very faint signals from space.” Meaning, any radio frequency interference (RFI) could corrupt that research.
In order to limit RFI, the Federal Communications Commission in 1958 established the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) covering approximately 13,000 square miles and parts of both Virginia and West Virginia. In the mid-20th century, this meant no radio towers, television antennas, or heavy machinery could be installed unless they met very restrictive guidelines set forth by the FCC (like highly directional antennas and reduced power). It also prohibited private citizens from operating their own radio equipment, like ham radios, within the zone.
An even more strict law was put on the books by the West Virginia Legislature. The state’s Radio Astronomy Zoning Act of 1956 says it’s “illegal to operate or cause to be operated any electrical equipment within a two-mile radius of... any radio astronomy facility.” Similar tight restrictions also applied up to 10 miles from the facility.
Sixty-one years later, both the NRQZ and the Radio Astronomy Zoning Act are still in effect. But we no longer live in the 1950s.
2019 is filled with cell phones, Wi-Fi, satellite television, electronic tire pressure systems, cars with hotspots, smart refrigerators, video doorbells, Bluetooth headphones, app-powered Nikes, and toothbrushes that use wireless technology to give you a better smile. Our modern world is nearly always and completely connected by wireless internet, 4G (and, soon, 5G), and Bluetooth capabilities. These days, it’s all RFI, all the time.
Yet, in Green Bank, all of this is illegal in the name of science and discovery. But is it even possible to keep technological evolution out of this remote West Virginia town?
Dr. Karen O’Neil, GBO’s Site Director
Julia Rendleman
WiFi Is Illegal in This American Town WiFi Is Illegal in This American Town Reviewed by Earth Edition on November 02, 2019 Rating: 5

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