Where WiFi and cellphone bans bring chaos

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  • Most electronic devices are prohibited in the area around the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.
  • The zone without WiFi is an anomaly given that 97% of Americans use a smartphone, per Pew.
  • Stephen Kurczy spent 3 years researching the area and told Insider that it appeals to everyone from neo-Nazis to ‘electro-sensitive’.

Anyone who travels to Pocahontas County, in the heart of the Appalachians, will find failing cell service and scarce Wi-Fi hotspots.

The West Virginia area is home to the National Radio Quiet Zone – a 13,000 square mile legislated radio silence zone where cell service and most electronics, including WiFi, are banned or severely restricted.

It’s a tech-timid’s paradise. Astronomers, neo-Nazis, spies and people who think they might get sick from the technology are those who made the pilgrimage to the county, home to 8,450 residents.

The area protects the work of the Green Bank Observatory, which requires radio silence to detect radio waves emitted by stars and pulsars. He also protects Sugar Grove, an NSA spy station.

Author Stephen Kurczy reveals a county in conflict in his new book “The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence”.

The Green Bank’s community support for the observatory has started to wane, although it is proving to be a strong educational and economic partner. Kurczy discovered that most locals want WiFi – or they already have it, illegally.

“In what other places in the world do people feel ashamed or guilty about having WiFi? Kurczy told Insider, describing when a minister admitted to having WiFi after claiming otherwise. “If a minister was willing to lie, who else was? How more prevalent could it be? “

A “Quiet Zone cop,” who monitors technological breaches, reported 175 Wi-Fi access points within two miles of the observatory, more than the 150 homes within that radius. “There seemed to be more WiFi signals now than homes, if that was even possible,” Kurczy says in his book.

“WiFi refugees” who believe, with little supporting evidence, that exposure to electromagnetic fields makes them sick, have become an unlikely ally of the observatory.

Diane Schou, an “electrosensitive” profiled by Kurczy, presents the quiet area as a haven of peace, but has provoked tensions with residents due to “really strict calls for calm”.

“Diane Schou has pushed the county’s tolerance for foreigners to a new limit,” the book says. Electrosensitivity isn’t limited to WiFi, but to lights, aquariums and other devices. “’You have to turn off your hearing aids,” she told one person, ”Kurczy said.

There are darker reasons why people are drawn to silence. The Quiet Zone was once home to America’s “most prominent” neo-Nazi, William Pierce, and his group, the National Alliance, based in a 346-acre complex. Pierce’s race war book, The Turner Diaries, influenced terrorists such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh.

Although disbanded, Kurczy writes that the group’s heinous legacy continues. He said he met neo-Nazi David Pringle, who claimed to have monthly barbecues for locals, and had planned a festival for Hitler’s birthday. And after the Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville in 2017 killed an anti-racist protester, Pringle, who was unable to attend the protest, told Kurczy: “It’s like I couldn’t go to prom. “

Throughout Kurczy’s visits, members of the National Alliance attempted to revive the infamous site, he said, but it was being sold when it was last recorded.

As long as Sugar Grove, the NSA’s Cold War-era listening post, continues to operate, the Quiet Zone is likely to be safe. The facility, a former naval base with a mountain-top outpost, was established in the 1960s to monitor Russian communications as messages bounced off the moon. The town of Sugar Grove itself was sold in 2016, but the station remains active just south of it.


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