An American Town without Wi-Fi or Mobile Phones

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15 April, 2017

You might think people all over the United States have wireless internet service and mobile phones. But there is no such service in Green Bank, West Virginia, a tiny town four hours from the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C.

Fewer than 150 people live in Green Bank, which has two churches, an elementary school and a public library. It also is home to the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world.

There is a ban on Wi-Fi -- wireless internet service -- in Green Bank, along with anything else that can create electromagnetic waves. Officials say the waves could interfere with signals the telescope receives.

For many Americans, a visit to Green Bank is a little like returning to the 1950s. To get there, you must read road signs -- because there is no GPS service in the town. People can connect with the internet through telephones or Ethernet cables, but wireless service is not permitted.

Sherry Chestnut was born in the town, so the lack of Wi-Fi, texting, and mobile phone service is normal for her.

"We've never really had it, so most people would probably say we do it the old-fashioned way, even though to us it's not the old-fashioned way -- it's just the way of living."

The store where Chestnut worked until recently has a landline telephone. Such phones are the only way to call someone while in Green Bank.

There is a 33,000-square-kilometer zone of silence around the radio telescope. Cell phone towers are not permitted in the area. There is also a 16-kilometer area around the observatory where radio-controlled toys and other devices may not be used.

Green Bank is in an area called the National Radio Quiet Zone. The Federal Communications Commission created the zone in 1958. It extends to other parts of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.

Some people call the Green Bank Telescope "the GBT." That is short for "Great Big Thing."

The observatory is one of the largest employers in the area. The federal National Science Foundation (NSF) spends about $8.2 million a year to operate the observatory, telescope and educational center. That is about two-thirds of the cost of operating the facility. The other third comes from West Virginia University, the educational partnership NANOGrav (Nanograv.org) -- which is funded by the NSF -- and Breakthrough Listen (BreakthroughInitiatives.org), a private organization which seeks to learn if there are other forms of life in the universe.

Jonah Bauserman is a technician. He enforces the ban on devices that produce electromagnetic waves.

"With this equipment I can actually look for a little weak signal that could be interfering with the telescopes."

If Bauserman suspects there is a signal that is not permitted in the zone, he drives to the house where the signal is coming from and inspects it.

Telescope employees work in a specially designed room that blocks electromagnetic waves.

Michael Holstine is an observatory official.

"This is an electrical submarine if you will. No electrical waves can get, electromagnetic waves can get into this room, none of them can get out of this room."

Holstine told NBC News the radio telescope can capture signals "from 13 billion light years away."

The scientists work to limit the effect of interference on the telescope. But once a week, when the device is cleaned, some banned devices are permitted near it.

The telescope is searching for radio signals from other planets, among other things. Richard Lynch is one of the scientists who listen for signals from outer space.

"All the signals that we detect with the telescope so far are just generated by unintelligent stars, galaxies -- you know, things in the universe. We haven't ever detected anything from an intelligent civilization."

Sherry Chestnut and others in the town respect the work of the scientists. And they say they are happy to live without wireless internet service or mobile phones.

"You know, instead of sitting here on our phones and our gadgets we're out fishing and hunting and going to each other's houses."

For the latest news, people in Green Bank read the local weekly newspaper. When Chestnut needs to look for a phone number, she looks in a phone book. And instead of sending messages on Facebook to her friends and neighbors, she talks to them. In Green Bank, everyone knows each other and communication is almost always face-to-face.

Correspondents Lesya Bakalets and Sergey Sokolov from VOA's Russian Service reported this story from Green Bank, West Virginia. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our testbig.com.

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Words in This Story

steer – v. to control the direction in which something (such as a ship, car or airplane) moves

electromagnetic – adj. a magnetic field that is produced by a current of electricity

GPS – n. a radio system that uses signals from satellites to tell you where you are and to give you directions to other places

old-fashioned – adj. typical of the past in a pleasing or desirable way

landline – adj. a kind of telephone that uses wires; a phone that is not a mobile phone

zone – n. an area that is different from other areas in a particular way

allow – v. to permit (something)

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