STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now we take you to the quiet zone. It's a place in West Virginia where you cannot get cellphone service, bluetooth or Wi-Fi for hundreds of square miles. In the quiet zone, those technologies are banned. NPR's Elise Hu brings us this story from a place the wireless revolution skipped over.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: There are no physical signs you've entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, but the silence of your cellphone is a pretty clear signal.
How many bars do you have?
JOHN POOLE: Zero. Searching.
HU: NPR photographer John Poole and I noticed the silence near the Virginia-West Virginia state line. Almost every radio station disappears except for Allegheny Mountain Radio, which broadcasts at a low enough frequency to avoid being banned.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
CALEB DILLER: Welcome back to Traffic Jam. I am Dr. Diller. I'm your DJ this afternoon.
HU: DJ Caleb Diller hosts a weekly show. He grew up here in Pocahontas County, W.Va.
DILLER: We didn't realize that the rest of the world was like, getting connected and staying connected constantly, you know, via phones and computers and all that, and so, you know, we were kind of, you know, back in time a little bit. We hadn't, you know, hadn't progressed to that.
HU: They still haven't. With state and federal laws keeping out cellphone towers and Wi-Fi signals here, residents of Green Bank, a no-stoplight town, check the Internet over landline connections or at the local library. That's where we found Arnie Stewart, who moved here after retirement.
ARNIE STEWART: Those people that have lived here all their lives have grown up without cellphone, so they don't miss it.
HU: For fun?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello. Honey, I'd say I'm probably 40 miles.
HU: ...some of them chit-chat...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: N-A-K-O-K, OK.
HU: ...over ham radios. Pat Schaffner says his ham radio hobby has actually helped in emergencies.
PAT SCHAFFNER: Last year, the big wind storm we had, of course, and we were without power for some days and without a lot of communications - all the phone lines were down. So we had different spots around the county that we could talk from one end of the county to the other, and you know, maybe relay about a store being open or somewhere having ice.
HU: The reason for the low-tech life here is actually because of a sophisticated radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Unlike the tube-shaped optical telescopes you might be thinking of, a radio telescope looks like a giant satellite dish. The Green Bank Telescope is as tall as the Washington Monument, and large enough to fit 2 acres of land in it. Karen O'Neil oversees the site.
KAREN O'NEIL: It's a huge collecting area, and it's what allows us to see these incredibly small energies that we're trying to study. The types of energies we look at are less than the energy of a single snowflake falling on the Earth.
HU: Energy from Wi-Fi signals can confuse or interfere with the telescope's readings, and it can trip up antennas at the government's Sugar Grove research facility, which is also in the zone - so no interference is allowed.
O'NEIL: It is still the quietest place within North America.
CHUCK NIDAY: We still have communications. I mean, it's just older. (Laughter) Dial-up telephones - we still have phone booths.
HU: That's observatory engineer Chuck Niday. Each week, he drives a 20-mile radius around the Green Bank Telescope policing for possible interference.
NIDAY: Say someone has a Wi-Fi service set up near the observatory that's causing us interference. We can ask them to shut it off, and most of the times they do.
HU: But keeping the noise down around here is getting harder these days. Karen O'Neil.
O'NEIL: So if you think back to 1956, when this site was first built, there were issues with radio noise. But most of those issues came about through cars and spark plugs and power lines. And now, we're living in a society where everything is wireless.
HU: And constant connectivity has become a consumer and cultural demand. George Murphy is IT director at the Snowshoe Ski Resort. It happens to sit right inside the zone. So Murphy has to get creative to get customers cell service without running afoul of the astronomers.
GEORGE MURPHY: We have to find a way to communicate that doesn't interfere with them.
HU: This summer, Murphy got a system of shoebox-size antennas installed in the resort's retail village. It brought cellphone service to a pocket of Snowshoe for the first time ever.
MURPHY: This was huge. This was huge. From the day I started here, I was working on this project with several different companies.
HU: So change is in the mountain air here in West Virginia. But for most of this area, life remains slower-paced. Instant messaging and texting is still something Chuck Niday, the interference cop, sees on TV or when he travels out of town.
NIDAY: It's nice to be able to just pull something out of your pocket and send a message to someone, and get a response within 30 seconds or so. But I don't know that it's that necessary. At least, it's not around here.
HU: Around here, the people seem content to stay disconnected - at least, for now.
Elise Hu, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Now, we should mention the Green Bank Telescope, which is the reason the quiet zone exists, has itself currently gone quiet. The dish was forced to stop reading the galaxies last week because of the government shutdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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