from the apocalypse-averted dept
The apocalypse for those who like to tinker with their router firmware may be postponed.
Last year we noted how the FCC updated router and RF device rules for safety reasons, 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 the just the RF capabilities of devices. But some sloppy FCC language worried tinker advocates and custom-firmware developers, who 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.
And, at least with some companies, that’s exactly what happened. TP-Link for example stated that it would be preventing custom router firmware installations with gear built after June 2016, blaming the FCC for the decision while giving a half-assed statement about respecting the hobbyist community’s “creativity.” Again: the rules don’t mandate anything of the kind; TP-Link just decided to take the laziest, most economical route.
Fortunately, not all hardware vendors are following TP-Link’s lead. Linksys has announced that while it will lock down modifications on some router models, the company will continue to let enthusiasts tinker with its WRT lineup of hardware, which has been a hobbyist favorite for years. From its comments the company is well aware that while custom firmware flashers may comprise a minority of overall customers, they’re a vocal minority that companies really don’t want to piss off. As such, a company spokesman was quick to breathlessly praise third party custom firmware options:
“The real benefit of open source is not breaking the rules and doing something with malicious intent, the value of open source is being able to customize your router, to be able to do privacy browsing through Tor, being able to build an OpenVPN client, being able to strip down the firmware to do super lean, low-latency gaming,? La Duca said. ?It’s not about ?I’m going to go get OpenWrt to go and piss off the FCC.’ It’s about what you can do in expanding the capabilities of what we ship with.”
While it would be nice to see more models supported, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. It should be noted that (now Belkin-owned) Linksys said it wasn’t a very big deal to lock down the radio specifically, contrary to what some vendors have claimed:
“The hardware design of the WRT platform allows us to isolate the RF parameter data and secure it outside of the host firmware separately,” Linksys said in a written statement given to Ars. La Duca declined to get more specific about Linksys’s exact method. Even though this is about enabling open source, Linksys?s method is proprietary and provides a competitive advantage over other router makers that aren?t supporting open source, La Duca said.”
So while one vendor used the FCC rule change as an opportunity to be lazy and cheap, others are using the news as an opportunity to embrace an important part of their community. And from the looks of thinks Linksys won’t be alone in the effort; representatives from Asus have been telling some hardware enthusiasts that they plan to continue supporting third-party open source firmware as a point of pride as well:
“As you may know, FCC requires all manufactures to prevent users from changing RF parameters. Not only manufactures’ firmware but 3rd party firmware need to follow this instruction. Some manufactures’ strategy is blocking all 3rd party firmware, and ASUS’s idea is still following GNU, opening the source code, and welcome 3rd party firmware. ASUS are co-working with developers such as Merlin and DDWRT to make sure 3rd party firmware’s power are the same as ASUS firmware and obey the regulations.”
None of this is to say these companies can’t go back on their word down the line (concerned users should keep the pressure up), but it’s refreshing to see at least a few vendors actually standing behind their communities’ right to tinker.