As It Happens

Wi-Fi is illegal in this West Virginia town, but it 'keeps creeping in' anyhow

It's illegal to use Wi-Fi in Green Bank, West Va., because the town is home to a massive observatory that requires electromagnetic silence to operate. But it's becoming difficult to enforce that law as smart technology becomes more popular.

A giant observatory in Green Bank needs electromagnetic silence to run

The Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., is part of the U.S. Radio Quiet Zone, where wireless telecommunications signals are banned to prevent transmissions from interfering with a number of radio telescopes in the area. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
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In a world criss-crossed with webs of radio waves, Green Bank is keen to remain a Wi-Fi-free oasis of quiet and calm. 

The West Virginia town is home to the Green Bank Observatory and its eight telescopes — including the world's largest steerable radio telescope. 

It's also a place where Wi-Fi and cellphone signals are forbidden because any kind of radio interference can mess up the work of those telescopes. 

But now, in an age where your fridge, your car, or even a battery might have a Wi-Fi transmitter in it, the people who run the observatory are finding it harder to prevent that kind of radio interference.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Mike Holstine, the business manager of the Green Bank Observatory, about the town's efforts to keep the airwaves quiet. 

How much radio interference is too much when it comes to the work you do at the observatory?

The answer is that any radio emissions that interfere with us is too much. It keeps creeping in and every little bit that we get hurts. 

A warning sign is seen near the entrance to a field of telescopes at the Green Bank Observatory. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

What are you listening for? Why do you need to have it so quiet? 

The universe, in general, is radiating radio waves, light waves ... which really are a type of radio wave, towards us all the time.

And if you think about the old-school radio dial in a car, for instance, about the size of that, if you use that as a scale of what we can see with our eyes, the electromagnetic spectrum would be a radio dial about two miles long. 

So there is a lot of information out there that just we physically can't see. And so we need really high, sophisticated equipment in order to receive that stuff.

And what we do is we build and operate telescopes that work specifically in the radio frequency bandwidth. We try to intercept those radio waves and analyze that data, and it tells us a lot about the universe.

It also tells you, possibly, you might make contact, right, with some other intelligent life out there? 

Well, that's right. One of the things that we do is look for what are called technosignatures.

If an alien civilization is utilizing radio transmissions the same as we do — broadcasting TV, radio, microwaves, all the other things — then, hopefully, we would be able to detect that. 

It's a bit like Horton Hears a Who!, isn't it?

Ha! Yeah, kind of, it is.

So you have to have it really quiet because these are really, really, very subtle sounds. But, I mean, there is so much radio waves. There's so much Wi-Fi signals. So how can you possibly do that? How could you eliminate everything now that must be surrounding you? 

We're very lucky. Way back when this facility was first dedicated [in] 1955, 1956, the legislature then set up a 10-mile [16-kilometre] radius around this facility that would basically limit any electrical emissions above a certain threshold.

And then, about a year later, Congress created what's called the National Radio Quiet Zone. 

Green Bank resident Diane Schou is one of several people who live in the town who say they have 'electromagnetic hypersensitivity' caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields typically created by mobile phones, Wi-Fi and other electronic equipment. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

But that's more than 60 years ago. I mean, since then, just even in the past few years, so much more has come on. I mean, you have smart refrigerators. Your car is completely full of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Your tire pressure. Your toothbrush. I mean, everything is now connected. So how do you keep all of that out of your zone? 

That is the tremendous challenge.

Those two zones really worked well for us for about 40 years. And then, about 20 years ago, the digital revolution sort of took hold. And within the last 10, 15 years, every manufacturer of every device it seems put some wireless component into it.

And so that challenge has grown exponentially. Luckily, if we want to use that word at all, it's confined to one particular frequency, or maybe a couple. But 2.4 GHz, that's Wi-Fi. 

So what we've had to do is just figure out a way to work around those frequencies.

This is a town. People live there. So are you actually out on patrol chasing them down, hearing where the signals are coming from? Because it's against the law. It's a bylaw regulation, right? 

I have to say that the community is really, really great at working with us to try to minimize interference.

But we do patrol the area. We have a truck that has an array of antennas and equipment and we search for new sources of interference that we don't know has been there previously. 

One of the largest steerable telescopes in the world, the Green Bank Telescope, enables scientists to listen to low-level signals from different places in the universe. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

You know, As It Happens, actually this program, spoke with you about six years ago when the story was that there were people moving to Green Bank ... because they were concerned about the health impacts of cellphone radiation and they thought this was a healthier place for them to live. Do you still have people coming to your town because they don't want this technology in their lives? 

We do, yes. Green Bank, W.Va., has sort of become a haven for a contingent of society that believes that they are afflicted by radio waves, by electromagnetic frequencies, of various types.

They do want to come here because [they say] it makes them feel better. 

There must be some scientific experiment they could do on your town. It's a great lab, isn't it, for not having access to all the social media, the constant media. There must be a way to look at and see what the effect is of not having that.

That's a great observation. And it's true. There are a couple of people who have proposed to do a study about the area, the kids in the area, because we were sort of a control group, if you will. 

I mean, it's not like we don't have internet. I do. It just happens to be wired.

The big difference is that I choose when I want to be connected. And most of society now doesn't have that choice. It seems like they're connected whether they want to be or not.


Written by Alison Masemann and John McGill. Interview produced by Alison Masemann​​​​​. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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