Life In The Quiet Zone

Where Two Worlds collide

A look at life in Green Bank, West Virginia, where cell phones, WiFi — and even microwaves are forbidden.

By Suzanne Stewart

At first glance, Green Bank, West Virginia, has the appearance of a typical small town – a gas station/grocery store/restaurant, a library, a school, several churches, farms and neatly kept yards around quaint one- and two-story homes.

On closer inspection, there is one thing that sets Green Bank apart from all other small towns – the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. While it seems like a typical astronomy observatory, the NRAO have given residents of Green Bank a certain kind of lifestyle. A lifestyle free of cell phones and wireless connectivity.

The Reason?
The NRAO is home to an array of radio telescopes, including the largest, fully steerable radio telescope in the world – the Green Bank Telescope. The GBT is one-of-a-kind and is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope. It operates at meter to millimeter wavelengths.

Due to the sensitivity of the telescopes, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on November 19, 1958, established the National Radio Quiet Zone. The NRQZ is approximately 13,000 square miles and encompasses areas in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.

In the center of the Quiet Zone is Green Bank, where restrictions are increased. The 10-mile area in and around the NRAO cannot have cellphone towers, wireless routers and, depending on the model or condition of the item, microwaves, garage door openers or electric blankets, as they can cause interference, which affects the telescopes.

Despite the restrictions, residents of Green Bank live full and happy lives. I should know, I’ve lived here my whole life – minus four years away for college and five years away for a job.

When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to leave and move to a big city. That feeling didn’t last long. Unlike the teenage me, the adult me longed for my small town. My home.

There are people who don’t understand why someone would choose a small town, especially one without cell service, but there are so many things about Green Bank that make up for a less connected life. It isn’t a bad thing that everyone knows who you are. When you drive down the road, everyone waves, whether they know you or not. High school reunions happen every day. While we might not be connected by airwaves, we are, nevertheless, connected to each other.

Even the teens – the ones who use technology the most – don’t seem to mind. They find ways to stay connected despite the restrictions.

Teen Life in The Quiet Zone
When she was 13-years-old, Courtney Coetzee and her family moved to Green Bank from Maryland. She was prepared for the change because the family had vacationed here prior to the move, but teens will be teens.

Coetzee has a cell phone and computer, and keeps connected to her friends. More often than not, though, she gets together with friends and spends time face-to-face.

“[Living in the Quiet Zone] allows you to not depend so much on talking to people through the phone, but to get out and actually experience things, and talk to people in person,” Coetzee said.

Now 17, Coetzee is preparing to go away to school to prepare for a career in hospitality and culinary arts. As she leaves the Quiet Zone, she is certain her use of technology will increase.

“To be honest, [my cell phone] will probably end up getting used more,” she said. “I know when I actually get out to where we do have reception, I’m on it a lot more. Plus with me being away, I’ll probably use it all the time to talk to mom.”

How do Green Bank Businesses Operate with No Connectivity?
Residents of all ages have adjusted well to life without cell phones, but with the use of technology increasing, businesses in Green Bank have had a harder time keeping up with competitors.

Jacob and Malinda Meck operate several businesses from their office in Green Bank – Jacob Meck Construction, Allegheny Disposal, The Outhouse, LLC and Jen Trucking. With a large workforce that travels throughout West Virginia, as well as surrounding states, the Mecks have a need for connectivity. Yet, they have a hard time staying connected to crews and employees when they are working in Pocahontas County.

“That’s probably our biggest obstacle, a lack of communication,” Jacob said. “We lose a little bit of efficiency from a work standpoint. I don’t know that it’s the end of the world, but even 10 years ago, it wasn’t a big deal. Now,  however, as we compete with companies that have connectivity, they may be able to do things a little bit more efficiently than we do.”

The Meck’s fleet of trucks have CB radios, which help them keep in contact for the most part, but it isn’t the same as having a cell phone. To make up for connectivity issues, Jacob has purchased Celcom, a service that uses satellite connections for communication.

“They provide the cellular based equipment, but they also have a satellite option,” Jacob said. “Let’s say, for instance, I have a guy on [Rt.] 66 – if he’s got that Celcom equipment in his truck, he can actually communicate by satellite. When he gets into Elkins or even Huttonsville, that system automatically switches over to cell service.”

Being a business in the Quiet Zone may require the owners to make adjustments, some of which can be costly, but they, too, chose to stay in Green Bank because it’s home.

“As far as staying or leaving – that’s never even entered my mind,” Jacob said. “I always tell people if I wanted to leave, I would have left a long time ago.”

Jacob added he is perfectly content with not having cell service, but he does wish the [wired] Internet speed was better – a service that is not affected by the Quiet Zone.

The Media Buzz
With the help of media and stories from visitors, Green Bank has become internationally known as “The town without cell phones.” The buzz about the town has attracted visitors of all kinds. Green Bank has even become a safe haven for individuals who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS.

Individuals with EHS suffer an allergic reaction to electromagnetic fields, which are emitted by cell towers and wireless routers, as well as other electronic devices. Due to the restrictions put forth by the Quiet Zone, EHS sufferers feel safer in Green Bank. Many move to the town from larger populated areas or areas where new cell towers have been erected.

My neighbor moved to Green Bank last year from her home out west. She lived in a rural town, where her home was surrounded by farms, but once a cell tower was installed by her home, she immediately felt “something.”

She would get strong headaches and muscle aches, and she developed welts on her arms and legs. After visiting one doctor after the other who could not tell her what was wrong, she happened upon an article about EHS and Green Bank in Popular Science.

She finally felt as if she knew what was wrong. She purchased an EMF [electromagnetic field] detector and found that the readings in her house were off the chart. A typical EMF reading in a household is between 0.1 and 2.0 mG [milligauss]. Inside my neighbor’s former home, the reading was more than 700 mG.

After conducting further research about Green Bank, she and her husband decided to move here. Despite being near homes that use wireless routers, she feels exponentially better here than she did out west. Her welts are gone, leaving only faint scars, and her headaches and muscle aches have all but disappeared.

While EHS is not recognized as a disease by the World Heath Organization or the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals who believe they suffer from the disorder often feel they have found sanctuary in Green Bank.

In Keeping with Tradition
Most people would think we are limited or missing out on life because we don’t have cell phones, but to me, people who are constantly connected to their cell phones are the ones missing out. Instead of watching videos of people experiencing things, I’m doing them. I feel blessed to live in a town where the older generations are handing down their knowledge to the younger ones.

There are fourth-and fifth-generation farmers learning their trade from their grandparents and parents. Along with knowing their way around technology, children and young adults also know their way around old-time music, whether they play it on a fiddle, guitar or banjo. A plethora of artists here continue the art and crafts that have been part of the Appalachian culture for centuries. Quilters, basket weavers, knitters, crocheters, potters and lace makers keep our history alive with their creations.

If we had constant connectivity, I feel those traditions might be lost. There might be a few of us who would keep them going, but for the most part, everyone would be too distracted by their devices.

Life in Green Bank is definitely not limited by the Quiet Zone. It is limitless.

Suzanne Stewart is a reporter and page designer at The Pocahontas Times newspaper in Marlinton, West Virginia. It is the oldest business in Pocahontas County, as it began publishing in 1883.

Life In The Quiet Zone