by Karl Bode

Filed Under:
fcc, firmware, open source, routers, third party


FCC Demands TP-Link Support Open Source Third-Party Firmware On Its Routers

from the freedom-to-tinker dept

Last year, we noted how the FCC updated its rules governing routers in the 5 GHz band over safety concerns, stating that some illegally modified router radios operating in the unlicensed bands were interfering with terminal doppler weather radar (TDWR) at airports. The rule changes prohibited tinkering with just the RF capabilities of the devices. But engineers, the EFF, hobbyists and custom-firmware developers feared that because many routers have systems-on-a-chip (SOC) where the radio isn't fully distinguishable from other hardware -- vendors would take the lazy route and block third-party firmware entirely.

That only partially happened.

While the FCC told us explicitly that locking down third-party firmware was not its intent, router manufacturers like TP-Link did indeed take the lazy route -- locking down its routers to prevent third-party firmware installs, then blaming the FCC for it. Fortunately other router manufacturers like Belkin/Linksys took the opposite tack, going so far as to use the new rules as a marketing opportunity, highlighting how they'd continue to support tinkerers (at least in regards to its WRT line of routers). Companies like Asus also stated they'd continue supporting the tinkering community.

Fast forward to this week, when the FCC took some interesting steps to try and force TP-Link's hand on the subject. The regulator announced that it had reached a $200,000 settlement with TP-Link (pdf) for marketing routers to consumers that operated outside of FCC parameters. The FCC's full consent decree (pdf) offers a bit more detail, noting that TP-Link effectively let some router models be modified to operate outside of accepted U.S. parameters via a toggle setting that let users pretend they lived in other countries, opening the door to potential interference.

Note that this settlement involved routers in the 2.4 GHz band, while the rule changes above governed the 5 GHz band. But in an interesting wrinkle, the FCC used the settlement to push TP-Link back toward supporting open source third-party firmware for 5 GHz devices:
"TP-Link has also agreed to take steps to support innovation in third-party router firmware by committing to investigate security solutions for certain 5 GHz band routers that would permit the use of third-party firmware while meeting the Commission’s security requirements and maintaining the integrity of critical radio parameters."
The FCC stated the move was an attempt to balance RF safety and interference policy while supporting the freedom to tinker:
"The Commission’s equipment rules strike a careful balance of spurring innovation while protecting against harmful interference,” said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the Enforcement Bureau. “While manufacturers of Wi-Fi routers must ensure reasonable safeguards to protect radio parameters, users are otherwise free to customize their routers and we support TP-Link’s commitment to work with the opensource community and Wi-Fi chipset manufacturers to enable third-party firmware on TP-Link routers."
Note it's not entirely clear just how hard the FCC will push to ensure TP-Link compliance, and what "steps" TP-Link has to take to return to supporting third-party open source firmware remains a little murky. It's also likely that other router manufacturers will continue to take the lazy route and shut out tinkerers from installing third-party firmware. Still, it's a solid signal from the FCC that it at least realizes the value in open source modifications (or the bad PR in hindering it), an increasingly rare position in an era where you often no longer actually own the hardware and devices you buy.

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  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 3 Aug 2016 @ 1:07pm


    Wow, I did not expect this. Hooray!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 3 Aug 2016 @ 1:24pm

    I think if you read the story more closely, you will see that the FCC has relaxed it's rules and as such, TP Link is more willing to allow for third party stuff.

    It seems that the FCC and not TP Link "blinked".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2016 @ 3:54pm

    What the heck Techdirt?

    I come in here expecting to be depressed, but in stead I get the excact opposite. Was this article posted in error?
    What do I do? Should I contact a lawyer? Is it possible to sue for unexpected pleasant emotions?
    From what I have read on this site, I would actually stand a pretty good chance of winning.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    pixelpusher220 (profile), 3 Aug 2016 @ 4:53pm

    Why not just in 'restricted zones'?

    Why aren't people who live near airports simply required to buy routers that comply.

    If someone lives in flyover country, hundreds of miles from an airport, why are they restricting what routers can be used?

    also, see drones and why aren't the restrictions for airport areas applied to the whole country

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2016 @ 3:44am

      Re: Why not just in 'restricted zones'?

      Why should routers comply, and not the users? Oh, wait - they have to anyway, even before FCC action. Just nobody wanted to enforce it, rather - to use the path of least resistance. Just like TP-Link.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2016 @ 3:42am

    "support innovation in third-party router firmware by committing to investigate security solutions"

    I will support the innovation in rocket-manufacturers by committing to investigate traveling to Mars. Honestly! I will investigate it most thoroughly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 4 Aug 2016 @ 7:34am

    It's awesome. Even if the FCC doesn't really enforce what they asked it is plenty of bad PR to tp-link that may push them and others towards supporting tinkering. Installing some 3rd-party firmware on some routers turn them into beasts for somewhat little money (I'd argue that the companies could learn a thing or two from these initiatives or even just ship the hardware with the option of using their stuff or the most known firmware by default.

    Wishful thinking?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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