Router Company Lazily Blocks Open Source Router Firmware, Still Pretends To Value 'Creativity'
from the unintended-consequences dept
Last fall, you might recall that the hardware tinkering community (and people who just like to fully use the devices they pay for) was up in arms over an FCC plan to lock down third-party custom firmware. After tinkering enthusiasts claimed the FCC was intentionally planning to prevent them from installing third-party router options like DD-WRT and Open-WRT, we asked the FCC about the new rules and were told that because modified routers had been interfering with terrestrial doppler weather radar (TDWR) at airports, the FCC wanted to ensure that just the radio portion of the router couldn’t be modified.
The FCC stated at the time that locking down the full, broader use of open source router firmware entirely was absolutely not their intent:
“Our rules do permit radios to be approved as Software Defined Radios (SDRs) where the compliance is ensured based on having secure software which cannot be modified. The (FCC’s) position is that versions of this open source software can be used as long as they do not add the functionality to modify the underlying operating characteristics of the RF parameters. It depends on the manufacturer to provide us the information at the time of application on how such controls are implemented.
The FCC also updated the guidance in question (pdf) and penned a blog post that tried to explain all this. But while the FCC may not have intended to block third-party firmware, many worried that because many routers have “system on chip” — where the CPU and radio exist in a single package — router vendors would “solve” the problem by just taking the cheapest and easiest path and locking down firmware entirely. And that’s precisely what appears to be happening — at least with one router manufacturer.
Gearmaker TP-Link recently posted a notice to the company’s website announcing that as of June of this year, it would be locking down firmware installations on its routers entirely. In a statement, the company blames the FCC for the fact it’s taking the lazy route and annoying its more technically-proficient customers:
“The FCC requires all manufacturers to prevent user from having any direct ability to change RF parameters (frequency limits, output power, country codes, etc.) In order to keep our products compliant with these implemented regulations, TP-LINK is distributing devices that feature country-specific firmware. Devices sold in the United States will have firmware and wireless settings that ensure compliance with local laws and regulations related to transmission power.”
Again, TP-Link could work with the community and developers to ensure users can mod everything but radio parameters, but it’s being cheap and lazy. The company’s statement then adds insult to injury by pretending it still values the community’s “creativity”:
“As a result of these necessary changes, users are not able to flash the current generation of open-source, third-party firmware. We are excited to see the creative ways members of the open-source community update the new firmware to meet their needs. However, TP-LINK does not offer any guarantees or technical support for customers attempting to flash any third-party firmware to their devices.”
So, hey kids, we’re locking down your ability to be creative starting this June, but go be creative! In one blow, TP-Link is not only alienating a large number of potential customers, but making networks less secure (since custom firmware tends to be more secure and updated more religiously among the tinkering faithful).
I’ve reached out to the FCC for comment, but wasn’t able to glean any more detail from the agency beyond what has already been said. And while the TP-Link lockdown may have not been the FCC’s plan or its fault directly, it may very well be a very ugly, unintended consequence. It’s a shame that an agency that has been a bit more consumer friendly in terms of opening up other hardware and beefing up broadband competition didn’t spend more time thinking this through.
Fortunately, TP-Link isn’t exactly a brand favorite for most router buyers anyway, and the company’s language leaves some wiggle room to suggest that while “the current generation” of open-source third-party firmware won’t work on routers made after June 1, future versions of this same firmware may. TP-Link also appears to be the only vendor doing this (so far at least, please correct me in the comments if this has changed). With any luck, a few competing router vendors will see this as an opportunity to not be lazy and alienate customers — but to compete by providing gear that still respects a user’s freedom to tinker.