December is a tough time of year for ham radio operators. Many struggle with neighbors wiping out HF reception with their LED-illuminated holiday decorations. But what if I told you there was a place that had no RFI. It’s not a dream. It’s called the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ).
What is the National Radio Quiet Zone?
The NRQZ straddles the border of Virginia and West Virginia encompassing nearly 13,000 square miles. It was created in 1958 by the Federal Communications Commission to protect research conducted at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank from radio interference. The specific chunk of land was selected due to its proximity to Washington, but also for the possibility of using terrain shielding to protect the yet-to-be-built antennas from stray RF interference.
Restrictions are particularly strict within ten miles of Sugar Grove, WV and Green Bank, WV where the sensitive research hardware is located. Most omni-directional and high-power transmitters are prohibited in this area. The equipment is so sensitive even a musical greeting card could disrupt ongoing research.
Staff in pickup trucks patrol within 20 miles of Green Bank hunting down any electromagnetic radiation. Failing electrical devices, wireless Internet routers and even microwaves ovens are all traced to their source by routine patrols. Who are these RFI heroes? They’re known as the Interference Protection Group (IPG).
Sensitive equipment is only good if the noise floor is as quiet as possible, and the observatories mean business. The vehicles permitted within one mile of the research sites are restricted to old diesel vehicles with no ECUs.
What if you were driving in West Virginia, how would you know you’re in the quiet zone? That’s easy. Turn on your cars radio or try and use your cell phone. You’ll pick up almost zero commercial broadcast transmitters and your phone won’t have service. They still have communications in the small towns that reside in the NRQZ, it’s just more old school. Signs of more simple times like corded telephones and phone booths are still a big part of life and residents cannot have wireless doorbells or baby monitors.
There are exceptions in the quiet zone. Emergency services are allocated just a handful of frequencies, but they are engineered to reduce interference as much as possible. One thing not as impacted by the quiet zone regulations…amateur radio.
Ham radio in the National Radio Quiet Zone
Ham radio operators are required to use directional antennas and low power, but they are permitted to operate. There are a few repeaters that serve ham radio operators in the area. All repeaters must be approved by the observatory before being put on the air. If needed, they must cease operation at the request of the observatory.
Scientific research isn’t the only thing going on in the quiet zone. The extraordinary reception from a low noise floor also brought other government installations. The United States Navy installed two AN/FRD-10 circularly disposed array antennas (CDAA). The massive circular antennas with a 3200-mile range could be electronically steered and were used with other Navy installations around the world to monitor and triangulate on high-frequency transmissions from Soviet submarines. This technology has largely become obsolete in the post-Cold War era.
The National Security Agency is also thought to have sensitive equipment near Sugar Grove, WV that’s a part of their ECHELON program. Edward Snowden leaked the site’s name. It’s called “Timberline” and is/was largely used to intercept signals from satellites in orbit above the Atlantic Ocean
The National Radio Quiet Zone is unlike any other place on earth. Given my S6 noise floor thanks to cheap holiday decorations, I’m ready to book a flight to the NRQZ myself.