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Kids living in a US town where WiFi is banned hacked teachers’ computers and paid $20 for codes to get online

The view from dish level of the The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, on June 6, 2019.

  • Green Bank, West Virginia, is known as America’s quietest town due to banned cell service and WiFi.
  • Electronics that emit a frequency that can disrupt the work of its observatory have been outlawed.
  • In a new book, author Stephen Kurczy looked at how kids work around the ban – and even excel in STEM.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In a rural American town where WiFi is a crime and a lot of technology is banned, a student was caught hacking a teacher’s computer to get online – a move punishable by a $50 fine.

Welcome to Green Bank, West Virginia.

Home to 250 people, it is known as the quietest town in America due to its mandated lack of connectivity, designed to protect the work of Green Bank Observatory.

Radio silence is needed for the world’s largest steerable radio telescope to detect radio waves emitted by stars and pulsars in space. The observatory’s work is protected by a piece of legislation known as the Radio Astronomy Zoning Act, introduced in 1956 and curtailing the use of any electronics or radio frequencies that could interfere with the telescope.

Green Bank radio-free zone
The Green Bank Observatory is protected by a piece of legislation that curtails any nearby use of WiFi and connected devices.

Green Bank features in a new book, “The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence” by Stephen Kurczy, an author and journalist previously published by The New York Times and The Economist.

During three years of research, Kurczy looked at how students excelled in STEM subjects despite restricted access to tech.

At Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, teachers can’t use ‘smart’ whiteboards in class It can take weeks to rotate students through wired computer suites for online assessments.

The first time Kurczy visited the school, close to the observatory, a student had been caught creating a WiFi hotspot on a teacher’s computer, breaching the rules of The Quiet Zone.

“I got the impression it wasn’t the student’s first offense,” Kurczy wrote. “He readily confessed to knowing how to create a hotspot using school computers as well as how to sneak around the administration’s web filters to access social media.”

The rules are most stringent within a 10-mile radius of Green Bank observatory, with outlying towns allowed WiFi, though some are held back by patchy providers. In the wider Pocahontas county, population of just 8,000, around half of all pupils and students don’t have fast enough home internet for online learning, the book states.

Pocahontas County High School is far enough from Green Bank to have WiFi, but only school administrators are allowed to use it. A teacher told Kurczy students paid up to $20 for WiFi codes, offering a temporary connection before the password was reset.

Some students drive to the end of their street, to a friend’s house, or to a petrol station – an hour away, in the nearest city – in an attempt to check social media or download an OS update. According to Kurczy, most kids own smartphones but only use features like the torch, compass, or calculator.

There may be something to be said for fewer distractions.

“There’s all kinds of ways like this observatory is a strong educational partner,” Kurczy told Insider.

Green Bank Elementary-Middle School’s robotics club is led by the observatory’s director, an astrophysicist, and her software engineer husband. The school won state champion in two recent competitions, and came in first, second and third in regional competitions.

Its STEM club was victorious in a statewide competition for an app proposal to warn residents of flash floods, drawing on weather data. Member Mathias Solliday, who lives in Green Bank, personally won a tablet and the club received $5,000 in prize money, the book states.

“They won the statewide app competition, even though there’s no cell service here, even though Matthias didn’t have a smartphone, you know, they were still able to win this competition,” Kurczy said.

“In Mathias’ mind, the lack of cell phone service, the restrictions on technology, they weren’t holding him back at all.”

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