Future Tense

The School That Has to Decide Between a Soccer Field and Wi-Fi

In Green Bank, West Virginia, Wi-Fi is restricted because of an observatory. But things are changing—especially for students.

A large telescope in the middle of a field covered in light snow.
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Stephen Kurczy

Adapted from the book The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy. Copyright © 2021 by Stephen Kurczy. From Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

The first time I walked into Green Bank Elementary-Middle School in West Virginia in May 2017, a student was in trouble for creating a hotspot using a teacher’s computer. Beyond the fact that the 13-year-old had hacked into the network, he was potentially also breaking state law by broadcasting an unapproved radio signal so close to the Green Bank Observatory, whose giant radio telescopes loomed behind the playground like silent sentinels.

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I found the culprit, an eighth grader named David Bond, in a cinder block–walled room strewn with musical instruments. He readily confessed and said he could also sneak around the administration’s web filters to access social media. In theory, the school faced a $50 fine because of Bond, per the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zoning Act that made it unlawful to emit radio interference so close to the observatory. The only law of its kind in the country, it also made this the nation’s only school where it was arguably illegal to have Wi-Fi.

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Green Bank was further surrounded by a 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone that restricted cell service and wireless communications, which in some ways made the town seem like a throwback to Mayberry. As a case in point, Bond was also in trouble that day for passing a note to his girlfriend. “It was just something sweet,” he said of it. And I’d thought handwritten love letters were obsolete.

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Bond and his girlfriend also communicated using their iPhones’ AirDrop function, yet another admission of running afoul of the law, as smartphones (even in a dead zone) emitted radio interference to the telescopes. I wondered: How is a teenager flouting the rules so easily? Before first arriving to the Quiet Zone, I’d read dozens of articles that said Wi-Fi was “outlawed” and cellphones were “banned.” But now, Bond was telling me that most of his classmates also had smartphones. His music teacher, Greg Morgan, agreed—and showed me his own. When I later asked a class of third graders if anyone owned a mobile device, every hand shot up.

“Some of these kids are very poor, but they still have an iPhone 7 or whatever,” Morgan said. Around one-third of children in the county lived in poverty, and all received free school breakfast and lunch through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. But that didn’t limit the pervasiveness of smartphones.

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Or Wi-Fi, for that matter. In 2017, the observatory was already picking up about 115 hotspots within two miles of the telescopes. Today the number is nearing 200—more Wi-Fi signals than homes, if that is even possible—making the 2.4 gigahertz frequency an electro-static junkyard that is lost to astronomical observations.

The situation put Green Bank Elementary-Middle School’s administration in a bind. While the $100 million, 485-foot-tall Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope required radio quiet from the community, the reality was that Wi-Fi was already pervasive around town. All internet at the school was hardwired out of respect for the observatory, but it was getting harder to justify the associated headaches.

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Students had to rotate through two wired computer labs for online testing, which could take weeks. It was impossible for administrators to do remote classroom observations over an iPad or iPhone, or to enter teacher and student evaluations directly into a Wi-Fi-connected laptop. Teachers couldn’t use Wi-Fi features on their SMART boards. Morgan, who was also the school’s AV director, had to find workarounds when guests showed up with wireless mic systems. If the speaker wanted to walk into the assembly to interact with students, Morgan followed behind with a cord as it snaked through the aisles, tangled on chair legs, and draped across students’ laps.

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The educational hurdles extended outside the school. Whereas people in other areas of the country with slow internet could fall back on cell service for online connections, that wasn’t an option in most of the surrounding area, making it harder for students to remotely access libraries and learning websites. “Folks living on the edge get their internet through cellphones, so if we can’t have cellphones, then we are impacting people’s connectivity,” said Joanna Burt-Kinderman, the county math coach. “If you don’t have internet speeds that allow students to use free, open-source, online tools, that’s a big limitation in an age when education funding is getting cut.”

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Bond was less concerned about cell service and internet for education than he was about downloading software updates for his Xbox. To do so, he had to drive an hour north to the city of Elkins, where his best chance for fast internet was tethering to the Wi-Fi at Sheetz, a souped-up gas station and convenience store chain.

Bond said he wanted to move away from the Quiet Zone as soon as he could, though he added that he’d miss hunting in the area. He started naming all his guns: “I’ve got a .45 ACP, a 7mm-08, .243, .17 HMR, a 12-gauge, 20-gauge, .30-30, .22, a .410, another .243, muzzleloader, and a .380 pistol.” Bond shot his first deer when he was 11, the age most kids in America got a smartphone.

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“I’ve got videos of me shooting a gun,” he said. “You want to see one?”

“Sure,” I said.

Bond whipped out his iPod Touch, which was supposed to stay inside his locker.

Fortunately for Bond, he was about to enter Pocahontas County High School, which is outside of Green Bank and lifted its ban on mobile devices in the fall of 2017. Previously, if a student took a cellphone out of their locker, the device was confiscated and the student’s parents contacted; the second offense came with in-school suspension. But now teachers had discretion over smartphone use in their classrooms.

The shift was primarily because students had become inseparable from their devices, even if there was no cell signal or public W-iFi at the high school, according to Principal Joseph Riley. Within a year of the change, he estimated that three in four students were carrying smartphones. Math teacher Laurel Dilley put the figure higher. “All of them,” she said without hesitation, “unless they’re really unfortunate.”

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Dilley had previously taught in Morgantown, the state’s third-largest city, where she’d witnessed students texting test answers to their friends. That kind of cheating was less possible in the Quiet Zone, though it was getting easier with the influx of smartphones that could communicate via Bluetooth.

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One morning, I swung by Dilley’s classroom to gauge the situation for myself. The white walls were decorated with math and computer science posters. One said “#codeislife.” Another read “No Electronic Devices Allowed,” a holdover from the cellphone ban. Glancing around, I saw that most of the 18 students had smartphones on their desks. The high school was far enough away from the observatory that Wi-Fi was permitted, though it was only available to administrators. Students regularly hacked in and traded the password like a commodity. A teacher said she’d seen students pay up to $20 to get the code, which provided them with a temporary internet fix until administrators reset the password.

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“Does anyone here live in Green Bank?” I asked Dilley’s class. Three hands went up.

“Do you have smartphones and Wi-Fi at your homes?”

All said yes. They either didn’t realize or didn’t care that they were potentially admitting to breaking state law.

“Does anyone know why cell service is limited in Pocahontas?” I asked.

“Because of the big TV dish,” someone responded.

“If you had to choose between cell service and the observatory, what would it be?” I asked.

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“Cell service!” a student yelled. “Send that sucker overseas!”

Staff also embraced smartphones. A physics teacher had students use the flashlight function to observe how light reacted to polarization filters. The forensics class used the smartphone as an audio recorder. Math teachers appreciated its capability as a graphing calculator, as many school-provided devices were broken. The assistant principal told me she was constantly on her iPhone between Wi-Fi at school and Wi-Fi at home.

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“When I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, I check my phone,” she said. “I’m checking my email, checking Facebook—I’m just checking it.” So much for there being one place in America where you could still log off.

While smartphones and Wi-Fi were infiltrating the Quiet Zone, many schools worldwide have been instituting phone bans to cut down on online distractions—in essence, trying to make schools more quiet amid studies showing negative side effects from smartphones. The devices cause a “brain drain,” diminishing “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity,” according to a 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. A survey of 91 schools in England from 2001 to 2013 found that classrooms that banned cellphones on average saw a nearly 6.5 percentage point boost in test scores. Low-achieving students’ scores rose 14 percentage points.

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Amid such research, Taiwan in 2015 outlawed tablets and other electronic gadgets for all children under the age of 2, with a $1,500 fine for rule-breaking parents. All Taiwanese under the age of 18 were ordered not to use digital media for “a period of time that is not reasonable.” France banned smartphones in school through ninth grade. The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016 recommended that children under 18 months avoid all screens other than video chatting and that children aged 18 to 24 months watch only “high-quality programming” with their parents. The World Health Organization in 2019 issued guidelines of no screen time for children under 2 and no more than one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 4. The same year, the Canadian province of Ontario banned cellphones in classrooms.

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The alarm bells are even ringing in Silicon Valley, of all places. “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children,” Athena Chavarria, a former executive assistant at Facebook, told the New York Times in 2018. She did not allow her kids to have cellphones until high school. The same year, Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, was quoted in the New Yorker saying Facebook was “destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no coöperation, misinformation, mistruth.” He said his children were “not allowed to use this shit.”

For Pocahontas, the lack of cell service and restrictions on Wi-Fi were arguably blessings in disguise, allowing for distraction-free spaces that could aid concentration. Moreover, the observatory brought cutting-edge science into Appalachia and made it accessible to youths. Every year, an estimated 5,000 students from around the region toured the telescopes, many for multiday immersion seminars. Boy Scouts came to earn merit badges in radio astronomy.
High schoolers interned at the observatory, which in turn sent its staff to assist in schools.

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Green Bank Elementary-Middle School’s robotics club was coached by the observatory’s director, an astrophysicist, and her husband, a software engineer; the club placed first in the 2018 West Virginia First Lego League tournament, earning a world championship berth. Another observatory engineer helped teach the high school’s college-credit coding class and coach its robotics club, which in 2020 placed second in a statewide competition. When the high school needed a new sound system, an observatory engineer helped install it. When the elementary-middle school got wired internet, the observatory hooked it up.

But now that the rest of Green Bank was going wireless—remember those nearly 200 Wi-Fi signals the observatory had counted in the town?—the elementary-middle school wanted to join the revolution. Ruth Bland, the county’s technology director and former school principal, had discussed options with the observatory, with one idea being to install Li-Fi, which emits low-range wireless internet through lightbulbs. But that was prohibitively expensive. Another idea was to pile an enormous dirt mound behind the school to essentially shield Wi-Fi from radiating toward the telescopes.

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“The only thing is, we’d lose our soccer fields,” said Bland.

“What’s more valuable,” I asked, “a soccer field or Wi-Fi?”

She sighed. “Why make me choose? I’d like to have both.”

The cover of the book The Quiet Zone shows a satellite dish against mountains with a barn nearby.
Dey Street Books

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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