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No cellphone, no Wi-Fi: Living in America's quietest place

The area surrounding the Green Bank Radio Telescope may be the quietest place in America, banning cell phones, Wi-Fi, and other transmitters. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

By Kevin Monahan, Producer, NBC News

GREEN BANK, W.Va. – Every week, Chuck Niday patrols Green Bank, W.Va., in a vehicle that looks a bit like something out of the movie “Mad Max,” aiming to protect the largest steerable radio telescope in the world.

He searches for sources of interference, which can come from something as simple as a spark plug or an electric fence. And when Niday runs across illegal wireless signals or other electronics, he asks residents to desist.

“We just go in and ask them to turn it off, and leave it off,” he said. “People are usually pretty cooperative.”

If they don’t, he can send a report to the Federal Communications Commission. In 1958, the FCC created a 13,000-square-mile quiet zone to shield radio telescopes in Green Bank and Sugar Grove, W.Va., from harmful man-made interference, allowing scientists to study sounds emanating from galaxies all around the universe. 

Cellphones, Wi-Fi, radio, even certain electronics are all regulated. And there’s not a single cellphone tower to be found for miles. The entire U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone straddles the border between Virginia and West Virginia.

Bob Sheets has spent his entire life living in the shadow of the giant telescope -- literally. It’s visible from nearly every window of his home, and looms over his field of cows.

Green Bank, W.Va., is in the National Radio Quiet Zone, an area that covers 13,000 square miles. Bob Sheets, a life-long resident, says most people that visit are happy to turn off their cell phones, but others have a harder time adjusting.

A retired English teacher from the area, Sheets is quite aware that people might consider him “road kill on the technology highway,” as he puts it, but says the National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a great neighbor. He doesn’t think outsiders mind much either.

“Most people that come to visit are happy to turn their cellphone off and get away from it all for a while. It seems to reduce their anxiety,” he said.

The remote town of Green Bank sits smack in the middle of the Allegheny Mountain Range, situated in a valley in the mountains that is naturally protected from many of the radio signals flying around. 

It’s the closest community to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which runs the Green Bank Telescope. One-and-a-half times taller than the Statue of Liberty, the radio telescope listens into space. 

Telescope director Karen O’Neil explained: “We listen to galaxies, not just our own, and by doing so, try to understand how these galaxies were formed.”

Michael Holstine, operations manager, says it takes on some of the biggest questions of our time -- and the quiet zone is the perfect place to do it.

“We‘ve been able to peer back to just after the Big Bang, 13.9 billion to 14 billion years ago,” he said. “We need quiet to gather all the signals that are being supplied to us by the universe. Green Bank is just about the quietest place in the country.”

Michael J. Holstine, business manager at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia tells NBC's Kevin Tibbles that the steerable radio telescope, which is the largest in the world, can "peer back to just after the big bang."

But what about the seemingly draconian restrictions it puts on the local residents here?

At Green Bank Elementary Middle School, which is in direct line-of-sight of the telescope, students actually talk to each other instead of texting.

It doesn’t mean however, that some teenagers wouldn’t prefer to have a cellphone to help beef up their social lives.

“If you have a cellphone with you all the time, everybody can get a hold of you,” said Kourtney Cohenour, 14, who recently moved to Green Bank with her family. “You don’t need to worry about people trying to find you.”

They still have payphones here in Green Bank -- and people seem to use them. Some of the residents even get a kick out of those who still rely on cellphones.

“I saw a lady one time at a local gas station here,” Sheets said with a smile. “She was holding it high above her head to try and get a signal and then she took it over and she waved it around the pay phone.”

At the main general store in town, owner Bob Earvine and his son, Donnie, don’t seem to mind the restrictions.

Donnie Earvine claims to miss using his cellphone when he leaves town and comes back. As for his father, not so much.

“I don’t miss a cellphone one bit,” said Bob Earvine. “If the observatory wasn’t here, I’m not sure we would be. You can see how little other employment there is around here. It’s a small price to pay.”

Brian Farkas / AP file

The Robert C. Byrd Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory rises above the rural Pocahontas County, W.Va., countryside on Oct. 26, 2008. The telescope is the world's largest steerable radio telescope.