By Stephen Smoot
For almost seven decades, 13,000 square miles of eastern West Virginia has lain under the restrictions of the National Radio Quiet Zone, or NRQZ. According to the National Science Foundation, the zone was “set aside by the federal government to provide a geographical region to protect sensitive instrumentation from Radio Frequency Interference.” The zone covers the Green Bank Observatory and sensitive federal government operations at the National Security Agency facility in Sugar Grove.
Since its establishment in 1958, however, communications networks have transformed radically. Modern emergency service units rely more on wireless communications than ever before, necessities that have created concerns with local emergency management officials. Additionally, the restrictions related to the NRQZ have directly hampered attempts at economic development in Pendleton County.
Restrictions affect potential service from two sites in the county. As Rick Gillespie, Pendleton County emergency services coordinator, stated in a letter to U.S. Representative Carol Miller, the first request of the federal government “involves expanding the cellular service/signal from our Long Ridge Tower which overlooks Franklin, Brandywine, and the golf course.” He explained that an inhibiting factor on expansion of offerings at the course lay in “lack of cell phone coverage.”
The Long Ridge Tower would have to have a 2,500 megahertz deployment. Without allowing at least that speed of electronic transmission, “that plan is essentially dead in the water.” Megahertz is the measure of how fast an electronic transmission is made. In modern communications devices, speed of transmission is vital for reliability and efficiency.
Discussion of the NRQZ restrictions arose in a fall 2022 county commission meeting. Gene McConnell, then the county commission president, had asked general questions about the NRQZ related to a possible tower in the Seneca Rocks region, which led to an overall discussion of local concerns with it.
The purpose for the proposed tower for Seneca Rocks, according to Gillespie, “would be two-fold. It would allow us to enhance 911 communications to first responders and it would be a platform to host one or more cellular or broadband providers.”
Restrictions on output limits also threaten the viability of the Seneca Rocks tower project. As Gillespie explains, “the NRQZ must provide us with output limits that will allow 911 and cellular providers to emit reasonable levels of signal.” He said that the output limits are still being negotiated with the NRQZ.
Other steps must take place even beyond securing the proper output levels. The potential tower site at Seneca Rocks must receive funding and “pass all engineering, geologic, and other requirements.” Gillespie explained that the tower needed commitments from cellular providers and two had already expressed interest.
For its part, the NRQZ recently issued a request for information. Generally known as an RFI, federal agencies release these documents to gather information about potential projects and entities that might perform work on them.
This RFI, a joint request from the National Science Foundation and National Security Agency, asked for “information from organizations interested in conducting a study of the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) and emergency and civil communications in the NRQZ region.” It went on to state that it sought “effective strategies to improve emergency and civil telecommunications while protecting and enhancing federal facility operations.”
It also stated that “the NRQZ no longer adequately protects federal facility operations . . .from airborne and space-based transmissions” not covered by the Eisenhower Administration’s original regulations for the zone. Gillespie noted that it’s “open source information” that facilities across the globe similar to what operates in the NRQZ do not have similar restricted radio spaces.
In February, the Pocahontas County Commission struck a deal that allowed emergency services to use a low power band that did not interfere with the observatory. As WBOY in Clarksburg reported, however, emergency services still cannot use all conventional radio equipment and many residents cannot even dial 911.
Gillespie praised the “leaders of the NRQZ agencies (who) have been very willing to hear our pleas and they have provided some relief.” He described the impact of the restrictions as “akin to unfunded federal mandates” and added that “we need relief, either in the form of less restrictions or major funding to help us build the additional sites that are caused almost solely by the NRQZ restrictions.”