Save WiFi: Act Now To Save WiFi From The FCC

Right now, the FCC is considering a proposal to require device manufacturers to implement security restricting the flashing of firmware. We posted something about this a few days ago, but completely missed out on a call to action. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we live under a system of participatory government, and there is still time to convince the FCC this regulation would stifle innovation, make us less secure, and set back innovation in the United States decades.

The folks at ThinkPenguin, the EFF, FSF, Software Freedom Law Center, Software Freedom Conservancy, OpenWRT, LibreCMC, Qualcomm, and other have put together the SaveWiFi campaign (archive.is capture, real link is at this overloaded server) providing you instructions on how to submit a formal complaint to the FCC regarding this proposed rule.

Under the rule proposed by the FCC, devices with radios may be required to prevent modifications to firmware. All devices operating in the 5GHz WiFi spectrum will be forced to implement security features to ensure the radios cannot be modified. While prohibiting the modification of transmitters has been a mainstay of FCC regulation for 80 years, the law of unintended consequences will inevitably show up in full force: because of the incredible integration of electronic devices, this proposed regulation may apply to everything from WiFi routers to cell phones. The proposed regulation would specifically ban router firmwares such as DD-WRT, and may go so far as to include custom firmware on your Android smartphone.

A lot is on the line. The freedom to modify devices you own is a concern, but the proposed rules prohibiting new device firmware would do much more damage. The economic impact would be dire, the security implications would be extreme, and emergency preparedness would be greatly hindered by the proposed restrictions on router firmware. The FCC is taking complaints and suggestions until September 8th.

Even if you’re not living under the jurisdiction of the FCC, consider this: manufacturers of routers and other WiFi equipment will not be selling two version of hardware, one to the US and another to the rest of the world. What the FCC regulates affects the entire world, and this proposed rule would do us all a disservice. Even if you’re not in the US, tell your second favorite websites to cover this: neither Ars Technica nor Wired have posted anything on the FCC’s proposed rule, and even boingboing is conspicuously silent on the issue. You may submit a comment until September 8th here.

FCC Introduces Rules Banning WiFi Router Firmware Modification

For years we have been graced by cheap consumer electronics that are able to be upgraded through unofficial means. Your Nintendo DS is able to run unsigned code, your old XBox was a capable server for its time, your Android smartphone can be made better with CyanogenMod, and your wireless router could be expanded far beyond what it was originally designed to do thanks to the efforts of open source firmware creators. Now, this may change. In a proposed rule from the US Federal Communications Commission, devices with radios may be required to prevent modifications to firmware.

The proposed rule only affects devices operating in the U-NII bands; the portion of the spectrum used for 5GHz WiFi, and the proposed rule only affects the radios inside these devices. Like all government regulations, the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head, and the proposed rules effectively ban Open Source router firmware.

The rules require all relevant devices to implement software security to ensure the radios of devices operating in this band cannot be modified. Because of the economics of cheap routers, nearly every router is designed around a System on Chip – a CPU and radio in a single package. Banning the modification of one inevitably bans the modification of the other, and eliminates the possibility of installing proven Open Source firmware on any device.

Ubuntu Core Supports Raspberry Pi 2 I/O

Although it isn’t official, Ubuntu Core–the tiny Internet of Things version of Ubuntu–now runs on the Raspberry Pi 2. There are prebuilt binaries as well as instructions for how to roll your own, if you prefer. You can even access GPIO

Ubuntu Core abandons the old-style Debian packages, in favor of Snap, a new version of the Ubuntu phone’s Click package manager. Snap offers transactional updates. The idea is that all of these “things” on the IoT need to be updated to patch security holes or fix other issues.

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GoGo Starts Testing New In-Flight Internet Technology

GoGo, the largest provider of Internet above 30,000 feet, has announced they are now testing their next generation of in-flight Internet.

Of special interest in the new 2Ku system is the antennas strapped to the top of a GoGo-equipped plane’s fuselage. These antennas form a mechanically-phased-array that are more efficient than previous antennas and can provide more bandwidth for frequent fliers demanding better and faster Internet.

The Antenna Pod
The Antenna Pod

Currently, GoGo in-flight wireless uses terrestrial radio to bring the Internet up to 35,000 feet. Anyone who has flown recently will tell you this is okay, but you won’t be binging on Nexflix for your next cross country flight. The new system promises speeds up to 70Mbps, more than enough for a cabin full of passengers to be pacified by electronic toys. The 2Ku band does this with a satellite connection – much faster, but it does have a few drawbacks.

Because the 2Ku system provides Internet over a satellite connection, ping times will significantly increase. The satellites GoGo is using orbit at 22,000 miles above Earth, or about 0.1 light seconds away from the plane. Double that, and your ping times will increase by at least 200ms compared to a terrestrial radio connection.

While this is just fine for email and streaming, it does highlight the weaknesses and strengths of mobile Internet.

Two New FPGA Families, Designed in China

The two largest manufacturers of FPGAs are, by far, Altera and Xilinx. They control over 80% of the market share, with Lattice and others picking up the tail end. The impact of this can be seen in EE labs and alibaba; nearly every FPGA dev board, every instructional, and every bit of coursework is based on Altera or Xilinx chips.

There’s a new contender from the east. Gowin Semiconductor has released two lines of FPGAs (Google translate) in just under two years. That’s incredibly fast for a company that appears to be gearing up to take on the Altera and Xilinx monolith.

The FPGA line released last week, the GW1N family, is comprised of two devices with 1,152 and 8,640 LUTs. These FPGAs are built on a 55nm process, and are meant to compete with the low end of Altera’s and Xilinx’ offerings. This adds to Gowin’s portfolio introduced last May with the GW2A (Google translate) family, featuring devices ranging from 18,000 to 55,000 LUTs and DSP blocks. Packages will range from easily solderable QFN32 and LQFP100, to BGA packages with more pins than an eighteenth century seamstress at the royal ball.

For comparison, Xilinx’ Spartan-6 LX family begins with devices featuring 3,840 LUTs and 216kb of block RAM, with larger devices featuring 147,443 LUTs and up to 268kb of block RAM. Altera’s Cyclone IV E devices are similarly equipped, with devices ranging from 6,272 to 114,480 LUTs. Between the two device families introduced by Gowin recently, nearly the entire market of low-end FPGAs is covered, and they’re improving on the current offerings: the GW1N chips feature random access on-chip Flash memory. Neither the low-end devices from Altera nor devices from Lattice provide random-access Flash.

The toolchain for Gowin’s new FPGAs is based nearly entirely on Synopsys’ Synplify Pro, with dedicated tools from Gowin for transforming HDL into a bitstream for the chip. This deal was inked last year. As for when these devices will make it to market, Gowin is hoping to send out kits to well-qualified devs soon, and the devices may soon show up in the warehouses of distributors.

Gowin’s FPGAs, in contrast to the vast, vast majority of FPGAs, are designed and fabbed in China. This gives Gowin a unique home-field advantage in the land where everything is made. With LVDS, DSP, and other peripherals these FPGAs can handle, Gowin’s offerings open up a wide variety of options to developers and product engineers a few miles away from the Gowin plant.

The GW1N and GW2A families of FPGAs are fairly small when it comes to the world of FPGAs. This limitation is by capability though, and not number of units shipped. It’s nearly tautological that the largest market for FPGAs would be consumer goods, and Gowin is focusing on what will sell well before digging in to higher end designs. We will be seeing these chips show up in devices shortly, and with that comes a new platform to tinker around with.

If you’re looking to make your mark on the world of open source hardware and software, you could do worse than to start digging into the synthesis and bitstream of these Gowin chips. Just months ago, Lattice’s iCE40 bitstream was reverse engineered, and already there are a few boards capitalizing on a fully open source toolchain for programmable logic. With more capable FPGAs coming out of China that could be stuffed into every imaginable product, it’s a golden opportunity for hardware hackers and developers alike.

[Thanks for the tip Antti]

Drivers for 3D Printers and Why We Need Them

Manufacturers of 3D printers have a lot to do before they catch up with makers of the cheapest 2D, paper-based printers. If you’ve ever taken an inkjet apart, you’ll most likely find some sort of closed-loop control on at least one of the axes. The 2D printer will tell you when you’re out of ink, when a 3D printer will go merrily along, printing in air without filament. File formats? Everything is Gcode on a 3D printer, and there are dozens, if not hundreds of page description languages for 2D printers.

The solution to some of these problems are drivers – software for a 3D printer that slowly consumes the slicing of an object, printer settings, and placing an object on the bed. It’s coming, and the people who are responsible for making your 2D printer work with your computer are busy at work messing up the toolchain for your 3D printer.

The latest version of CUPS (C Unix Printing System) adds support for 3D printers. This addition is based on meetings, white papers, and discussions in the Printer Working Group (PWG). There has already been a lot of talk about what is wrong with the current state of 3D printer toolchains, what can be improved, and what should be completely ignored. Let’s take a look at what all of this has accomplished.

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Google’s OnHub Goes Toe to Toe with Amazon Echo

Yesterday Google announced preorders for a new device called OnHub. Their marketing, and most of the coverage I’ve seen so far, touts OnHub as a better WiFi router than you are used to including improved signal, ease of setup, and a better system to get your friends onto your AP (using the ultrasonic communication technique we’ve also seen on the Amazon Dash buttons). Why would Google care about this? I don’t think they do, at least not enough to develop and manufacture a $199.99 cylindrical monolith. Nope, this is all about the Internet of Things, as much as it pains me to use the term.

google-onhub-iot-router-thumbOnHub boasts an array of “smart antennas” connected to its various radios. It has the 2.4 and 5 Gigahertz WiFi bands in all the flavors you would expect. The specs also show an AUX Wireless for 802.11 whose purpose is not entirely clear to me but may be the network congestion sensing built into the system (leave a comment if you think otherwise). Rounding out the communications array is support for ZigBee and Bluetooth 4.0.

I have long looked at Google’s acquisition of Nest and assumed that at some point Nest would become the Router for your Internet of Things, collecting data from your exercise equipment and bathroom scale which would then be sold to your health insurance provider so they may adjust your rates. I know, that’s a juicy piece of Orwellian hyperbole but it gets the point across rather quickly. The OnHub is a much more eloquent attempt at the same thing. Some people were turned off by the Nest because it “watches” you to learn your heating preferences. The same issue has arisen with the Amazon Echo which is “always listening”.

Google has foregone those built-in futuristic features and chosen a device to which almost  everyone has already grown accustom: the WiFi router. They promise better WiFi and I’m sure it will deliver. What’s the average age of a home WiFi AP at this point anyway? Any new hardware would be an improvement. Oh, and when you start buying those smart bulbs, fridges, bathroom scales, egg trays, and whatever else it’ll work for them as well.

As far as hacking and home automation, it’s hard to beat the voice-activated commands we’ve seen with Echo lately, like forcing it to control Nest or operate your Roku. Who wants to bet that we’ll see a Google-Now based IoT standalone device quickly following the shipment of OnHub?

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