FCC Says It Won’t Lock Down Your Routers

FCC Says It Won’t Lock Down Your Routers

Good news, everyone! The Federal Communications Commission just clarified that it has no intention of locking down your devices.

The announcement comes after the FCC proposed new rules for routers (and other devices that emit radio frequencies) earlier this year. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking met with significant resistance from actual users of said devices. Language in the proposed rules sounded a lot like the FCC was telling manufacturers to lock down router software—a mandate that would have prevented users from flashing devices with open source firmware.

As we wrote in Wired back in September, the intent of the proposed rulemaking was to stop users from modifying RF devices outside of their intended parameters. As we explained it,

Most modern equipment—from laptops to planes—emits radio frequencies (RF). And the FCC carefully orchestrates traffic to ensure signals don’t get tangled up. Devices modified to operate beyond their intended parameters can cause interference with important systems (the FCC cites a 2009 case where user-modified devices were getting in the way of Doppler Weather Radars).”

RF-modded devices can also interfere with other important things—like medical devices. To clarify: that’s bad. In the proposed rulemaking, the FCC asked manufacturers to make sure that a device’s radio couldn’t be modded in ways that would throw it out of compliance. But the agency also issued a troubling guidance alongside the rules, asking manufacturers to “describe in detail how the device is protected from ‘flashing’ and the installation of third-party firmware such as DD-WRT.”

The proposed rules got being concerned that the FCC was going to prevent users from tinkering with their own routers.

Red flag, everyone. Locking down the radio is one thing. But locking down the entire device would have gotten in the way of a lot of really beneficial open source projects. We were concerned that the proposed rules could be read as a mandate against open source router firmware, like DD-WRT and OpenWrt. Thousands of concerned citizens wrote to the FCC, asking them to reconsider the wording and to clarify their rules.

And that’s exactly what the FCC just did.

Were we mandating wholesale blocking of Open Source firmware modifications? We were not,” Julius Knapp—Chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering & Technology—explained in a blog post on Thursday. He went on, I’m pleased that this issue attracted considerable attention and thoughtful submissions into the record and would like to make it clear that the proposal is not intended to encourage manufacturers to prevent all modifications or updates to device software.”

The FCC even revisited the troublesome language in the guidance—omitting its reference to DD-WRT entirely.

“… We agree that the guidance we provide to manufacturers must be crystal-clear to avoid confusion. So, today we released a revision to that guidance to clarify that our instructions were narrowly-focused on modifications that would take a device out of compliance.”

Way to go, everyone! We expressed concerns—and a government agency listened to those concerns. Mind blown.

Open source projects might not be fully out of the woods yet, though. As some commenters on the FCC’s post have pointed out, locking down just the radio portion of the router might not be feasible. And it’s possible some manufacturers might choose to lock down the whole router—as opposed to just the radio—as a cost-saving measure, even if that’s not what the FCC intended.

I guess we’ll find out as new routers hit the market—we’ll keep an eye on the situation as it continues to unfold.

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