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America's Unique 'Quiet Zone'

Imagine a cell phone free zone. Actually, the United States has such a place. It's called "The Quiet Zone." Anyone driving west from Washington DC towards the Allegheny Mountains will arrive before long in a vast area without mobile phone signals. This is the National Radio Quiet Zone—13,000 square miles of radio silence.

It's designed to protect a sophisticated radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference. The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (or GBT for short) is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. The energy of Wi-Fi or cell signals can confuse or interfere with the telescope's readings. So a federal quiet zone law and an accompanying state law—the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zoning Act—combine to keep the area very radio quiet.

Residents within the Quiet Zone live very different lives than most other Americans—no mobile phones, no microwave ovens, and even no wireless doorbells. GBT site director Karen O'Neill says:

We can access the Internet the same as anyone—the difference is that when I leave my desk the Internet doesn't follow me. When I watch a soccer game, every parent on that field is watching the kids playing soccer, nobody is looking at their cell phone, no one is worrying about that. You really don't see that struggle with the parents here where they talk to their kids and say, "You've got to put the phones away," and the kids go, "Do I have to?" and they're sneaking them under the table and doing everything they can to text their friends.

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