FCC rules may make tinkering more difficult

Sep 27, 2015 10:55 pm
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Kyle Wiens reports at Wired that mesh networks in communities all over the world may be in danger from an unnoticed line of regulations from the Federal Communications Commission. In March, 2014 the FCC updated requirements for U-NII devices using 5 Ghz bandwidth that includes many Wi-Fi devices and routers. It took over a year for anyone to notice a bit of regulatory language that might affect the open source community:
“Manufacturers must implement security features in any digitally modulated devices capable of operating in any of the U-NII bands, so that third parties are not able to reprogram the device to operate outside the parameters for which the device was certified.”
The rule is meant to target movies theaters turning radio waves into a white noise generator that blocked Wi-Fi/Bluetooth within a 1500 foot radius, and others acting in bad faith. But this March the FCC published guidelines to help manufacturers stay within the law, with another worrying line: “Describe in detail how the device is protected from “flashing” and the installation of third-party firmware such as DD-WRT.” DD-WRT is free, Linux-based firmware for wireless routers, used in those community mesh networks that allow cheap access to broadband. But the FCC told TechDirt’s Karl Bode that modifications and open source software are fine, “as long as they do not add the functionality to modify the underlying operating characteristics of the RF parameters.” But Weins worries that chip manufacturers will say, "the easiest thing for us to do is lock down all the middleware rather than worry about where to draw the line." That means that folks experimenting, tinkering, and changing electronic devices that use software defined radio signals will have a tougher time innovating. “In at least the last 5 years, Amateur Radio operators have found new and inventive ways to use these inexpensive devices to build broadband networks in support of community events, and to prepare for deployment of these devices for emergency incidents,” wrote ham radio operator James Kinter, Jr. “…Third party software is the basis for many of the Amateur Radio projects, that we then expand and customise for our own projects to easily allow us to build these projects without reinventing the wheel.”