At the beginning of this year, the Washingtonian ran an incredible piece about “electrosensitives” who had moved to “the town without wi-fi.” These people believe all the signals crowding the air to power our telecommunications-dependent society are making them sick, so they fled to Green Bank, West Virginia, which exists in the US’s only federally-mandated “radio quiet zone.”
Electrical equipment that could interfere with a giant radiotelescope that’s trying to pick up the faintest of signals from space is banned in the area. Like many of the articles written about Green Bank, an anachronistic place that fascinates the media, it described wireless internet, Bluetooth and cellular activity as “outlawed” in the area.
Yet, right in the middle of this “premodern,” 13,000 square-mile zone of electromagnetic silence is a ski resort which brags about its Wi-Fi and AT&T cellular service.
The Federal Communications Commission established the quiet zone in the 50s, and can fine people for operating electrical equipment there. (The fine, just $50 per day, seems not to have been changed since the 50s.) Fusion discovered when it visited Green Bank earlier this year that it is indeed hard to get smartphone service there, yet that’s not the case if you hit the slopes at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. The resort, as you can see from the map of the quiet zone above, is less than 10 miles away from the signal-sensitive telescope, but it has high-speed Wi-Fi and cell service. What gives?
This year AT&T deployed a robust network at the Snowshoe resort, which had set up limited cellular service by 2013. “It was quite an accomplishment,” says Steven Little, the AT&T engineer who oversaw the project. “We had to use equipment that broadcasts at a level 10 times less than the norm. It’s the technological equivalent to people whispering in a library so that we’re not disturbing others in the room.”
In order to make sure everyone’s phones were whispering, AT&T developed code that automatically switches cellular devices that connect to the network to low-power mode, quieting the phones from emitting 500 milliwatts to 1/1,000th of a watt or less. Then, in order to pick up on the weak signals from the phones, AT&T installed nearly 200 antennas around the resort, near the ground and on ski lifts, close to where skiers and vacationers would be. At Snowshoe, you now walk by an antenna in a building almost every 20 feet—it’s an electrosensitive’s nightmare.
Reducing the distance between towers and people’s handsets mean they can transmit at that low power level, keeping the devices in compliance with the requirements from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) which polices radio signals in the area. The phone signals are converted into light and transmitted via fiberoptic cable, 3 miles of which AT&T installed in the area. (Not everyone benefits though: While anyone can get Wi-Fi at the resort, you have to be an AT&T customer to be able to call a fellow skier and decide where to meet up for hot cocoa between runs.)
Little says there haven’t been any electrosensitive protesters since AT&T set the network up, though he says he was more worried about interfering with the incredibly sensitive radiotelescope straining to hear space signals from millions of miles away.
“The NRAO has a roving vehicle that drives through the area doing [radio frequency] sniffing to ferret out devices and sources of noise, and they’ll tell people to get rid of a device if it’s causing interference,” said Little in a phone interview. “It’s so sensitive that they’ve found electronic cattle fences creating unacceptable noise, but ours passes the test.”
Michael Holstine, the NRAO’s business manager for operations in West Virginia, told me via email that consumer devices have only started causing major problems for their telescope in recent years. “With the advent in the consumer market of every possible device having the capability of transmitting wireless signals (or so it seems), radio astronomy operations have become challenged,” Holstine said. But Snowshoe made it work.
“We have worked with this provider to determine locations and power levels that will prevent interference with our operations,” said Holstine. “The provider has also agreed to remotely switch off any offending signals depending on the program needs of the Observatory.”
Now that it’s set Snowshoe up, AT&T is looking to deploy its network elsewhere in Green Bank. In the future, there could be far more venues in the ostensible “wi-fi free zone” that have an internet signal and cell service. It’s a quiet zone, after all, not a silent zone.
Correction: The original version of this piece indicated that the Observatory planned to get cell service as well, but AT&T’s work with the Observatory was only around installing a cellular network at Snowshoe.