In 1958, the Federal Communications Commission of the U.S. Government issued Rulemaking Docket No. 11745, dated November 19. That rule explicitly defined a 13,000 square mile contiguous area, occupying parts of West Virginia and Virginia almost directly midway between Washington, D.C. and Charleston, WV, within which the 'normal' rules of U.S. radio transmitter licensing do not apply. In essence, this area is a restricted zone for radio transmission; any radio transmitter other than those in approved Federal Government service must apply for and receive a specific permit to operate in that zone.

The reason for its creation was to prevent radio frequency interference (RFI) with a very large radio astronomy receiver that the U.S. Navy was building at Green Bank, WV - the NRAO, or National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The zone provided that antenna with a clear path from horizon to horizon with no interference sources. However, that radio telescope was made obsolete almost immediately by other facilities. Yet the NRQZ didn't go away. What happened?

The U.S. Navy started using facilities inside the NRQZ (specifically, the aforementioned Green Bank, WV and another at Sugar Grove, WV) for other purposes. The Sugar Grove facility is designated a Navy 'space receiving facility' - i.e. it talks to satellites and other space assets. This does, in fact, make sense - the U.S. Navy needs a secure communications path from the CONUS to its assets abroad. This is not to be confused with a location which controls those space assets - that's USSPACECOM, in Colorado. What comes through the NRQZ is datalinks.

However, there is persistent speculation among non-government analysts* that in fact the NRQZ facilities are being used for SIGINT purposes - they point to the continued upgrading of facilities as Sugar Grove and Green Bank, as well as to various declassified documents which appear to acknowledge the intelligence collection function of the stations - some dating from before they were constructed. Such collection involves receiving data from telecommunications satellites - whether deliberate links or sub rosa snooping, they won't say. The U.S. did, of course, build and fly the Rhyolite satellites specifically to perform said task from space, so there's certainly evidence that this capability is in hand (the RHYOLITE satellites were crucial bits of the storyline for The Falcon and the Snowman, if that helps).

Examination of the site using commercial imagery (terraserver, MrSID, etc.) shows Sugar Grove to consist of a base area and a separate antenna farm. For more discussion of the current purpose of these stations, Google is your friend. I recommend searching on ECHELON and Sugar Grove.

In any case, the FCC and NRAO do provide a means for transmitters located within that area to be licensed - it involves sending details of the proposed installation to the "Interference Office" at Sugar Grove, WV to allow potential interference at their locations to be calculated. The NRAO itself provides information about applying for these licenses at: http://www.gb.nrao.edu/RFI/nrqz.html


* Update: Add the New York Times to those 'non-governmental analysts' - but they're not speculating, they're stating. From "The Agency That Could Be Big Brother," a Week in Review story run 12/25/2005 on the NSA:
DEEP in a remote, fog-layered hollow near Sugar Grove, W.Va., hidden by fortress-like mountains, sits the country's largest eavesdropping bug. Located in a "radio quiet" zone, the station's large parabolic dishes secretly and silently sweep in millions of private telephone calls and e-mail messages an hour.

Run by the ultrasecret National Security Agency, the listening post intercepts all international communications entering the eastern United States. Another N.S.A. listening post, in Yakima,Wash., eavesdrops on the western half of the country.

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