FCC to Investigate Raised RF Noise Floor

If you stand outside on a clear night, can you see the Milky Way? If you live too close to a conurbation the chances are all you’ll see are a few of the brighter stars, the full picture is only seen by those who live in isolated places. The problem is light pollution, scattered light from street lighting and other sources hiding the stars.

The view of the Milky Way is a good analogy for the state of the radio spectrum. If you turn on a radio receiver and tune to a spot between stations, you’ll find a huge amount more noise in areas of human habitation than you will if you do the same thing in the middle of the countryside. The RF noise emitted by a significant amount of cheaper modern electronics is blanketing the airwaves and is in danger of rendering some frequencies unusable.

Can these logos really be trusted? By Moppet65535 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Can these logos really be trusted? By Moppet65535 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If you have ever designed a piece of electronics to comply with regulations for sale you might now point out that the requirements for RF interference imposed by codes from the FCC, CE mark etc. are very stringent, and therefore this should not be a significant problem. The unfortunate truth is though that a huge amount of equipment is finding its way into the hands of consumers which may bear an FCC logo or a CE mark but which has plainly had its bill-of-materials cost cut to the point at which its compliance with those rules is only notional. Next to the computer on which this is being written for example is a digital TV box from a well-known online retailer which has all the appropriate marks, but blankets tens of megahertz of spectrum with RF when it is in operation. It’s not faulty but badly designed, and if you pause to imagine hundreds or thousands of such devices across your city you may begin to see the scale of the problem.

This situation has prompted the FCC Technological Advisory Council to investigate any changes to the radio noise floor to determine the scale of the problem. To this end they have posted a public notice (PDF) in which they have invited interested parties to respond with any evidence they may have.

We hope that quantifying the scale of the RF noise problem will result in some action to reduce its ill-effects. It is also to be hoped though that the response will not be an ever-tighter set of regulations but greater enforcement of those that already exist. It has become too easy to make, import, or sell equipment made with scant regard to RF emissions, and simply making the requirements tougher for those designers who make the effort to comply will not change anything.

This is the first time we’ve raised the problem of the ever-rising radio noise floor here at Hackaday. We have covered a possible solution though, if stray RF is really getting to you perhaps you’d like to move to the National Radio Quiet Zone.

[via Southgate amateur radio news]

Virtualizing Around The FCC’s Firmware Modification Rules

Last year, the FCC introduced new regulations requiring router manufacturers to implement software security to limit the power output in specific 5GHz bands. Government regulations follow the laws of unintended consequences, and the immediate fear surrounding this new directive from the FCC was that WiFi router manufacturers would make the easiest engineering decision. These fears came true early this year when it was revealed a large router manufacturer was not following the FCC regulations to the letter by limiting the output of the radio module itself, but instead locking down the entire router.

The FCC’s rules regarding the power output of 5GHz routers was never a serious concern; the FCC is, after all, directed to keep the spectrum clean, and can force manufacturers to limit the power output of the wireless devices. The problem comes from how manufacturers implement this regulation – the easiest solution to prevent users from modifying the output of the radio module will always be preventing users from modifying the entire router. Developers don’t like it, the smart users are horrified, and even the FCC is a little flustered with the unintended consequences of its regulation.

While the easiest solution to preventing the modification of a radio module is to prevent modification to the entire router, there is another way. The folks at Imagination Technologies have come up with a virtualization scheme that allows router manufacturers to lock down the radio module per the FCC directive while still allowing the use of Open Source router firmware like OpenWrt.

A demonstration of the capabilities of this next-generation router comes from the prpl Security Working Group and uses MIPS Warrior CPUs to create multiple trusted environments. The control of the router can be handled by one secure environment, while the rest of the router firmware – OpenWrt included – can be run in an environment more conducive to Open Source firmware.

The demo of a compartmentalized, virtualized router uses a dev kit consisting of a dual-core MIPS P5600 CPU running at 1GHz, and a Realtek RTL8192 WiFi adapter plugged into the USB port. The driver for the WiFi adapter runs under a secure hypervisor, making it secure enough to pass the FCC’s muster.

This build wouldn’t be possible without hardware virtualization in microprocessors and microcontrollers. Imagination Technologies has been working on this for a while, and only a few years ago demonstrated a PIC32 with baked in virtualization.

In the video below, Imagination Technologies demonstrates a MIPS board running three virtual machines. The first machine is running OpenWrt, the second is running a WiFi driver, and the third is running third-party applications. Crashing one machine doesn’t bring down the others, and the WiFi driver is locked away in a secure environment in accordance with the FCC regulations.

While it’s hard to imagine a router based on a MIPS board that would be cheaper than the already inexpensive router SoCs found in today’s routers, this method of secure virtualization is the best way to give consumers what they deserve: an open source option for all their devices.

Continue reading “Virtualizing Around The FCC’s Firmware Modification Rules”

FCC Locks Down Router Firmware

For years, we have been graced with consumer electronics that run some form of Linux, have a serial port on the circuit board somewhere, and are able to be upgraded through official and unofficial means. That digital picture frame you got for Christmas in 2007 and forgot to regift in 2008? That’s a computer, and it would make a wonderful Twitter feed display. Your old Linksys WRT54G router? You can make a robotic lawnmower out of that thing. The ability to modify the firmware of consumer electronics is the cornerstone of Hackaday’s editorial prerogative. Now that right we have all enjoyed is in jeopardy, thanks to regulations from the FCC and laziness from router manufacturers.
Continue reading “FCC Locks Down Router Firmware”

Get Your Amateur Radio License Already!

We run a lot of posts on amateur radio here at Hackaday, and a majority of our writers and editors* are licensed hams. Why? Because playing around with radio electronics is fun, and because having a license makes a lot more experimentation legal. (*We’re sure you have good reasons for slacking, Szczys.)

So let’s say that you want to get your “ticket” (and you live in the USA). It’s easy: just study for an exam or two, and take them. How to study? We’re glad you asked, because we just found this incredibly long video that’ll prep you for the exam.

swr_powerAt six and a half hours, we’ll admit that we haven’t watched the whole thing, but what we did see looks great. Admittedly, we were a little bit unnerved by [John (KD65CY)]’s overdone enthusiasm. But the content is fundamental, broad-ranging, and relevant. Heck, even a bit entertaining.

Even if you’re not interested in taking the exam, but are just interested in some radio basics, it’s worth looking. If you give it a shot, and like what you see, let us know in the comments what times stamps you found interesting.

The other “secret” about the amateur radio exams is that all of the questions and their answers are drawn from a publicly available pool of questions. This means that you can just cram the right answers, pass the exam, and you’ll have your grey cells back good as new in no time. To help you along your path, here are all the current Technician questions with only the correct answer for each. (And here is the Python script that generated them.) Read through this, take a couple of practice exams, and you’ll be ready to go.

In our experience, the Technician exam is easy enough that it’s probably worth your while to study up for the General exam as well. You have to take the former before the latter, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking them all in one sitting. (General gets you a lot more international shortwave frequencies, so it’s at least worth a shot.)

But don’t let that slow you down. Just getting the Tech license is easily worth studying up for a couple of hours or so. You have no excuses now. Go do it!

Continue reading “Get Your Amateur Radio License Already!”

FCC Clears The Air With Wi-Fi Software Updates

A few months ago, the Internet resounded with news that the FCC would ban open source router firmware. This threat came from proposed rules to devices operating in the U-NII bands – 5GHz WiFi, basically. These rules would have required all devices operating in this band to prevent modification to the radio inside these devices. Thanks to the highly integrated architecture of these devices, Systems-on-Chips, and other cost cutting measures from router manufacturers, the fear was these regulations would ultimately prevent modifications to these devices. It’s a legitimate argument, and a number of the keepers of the Open Source flame aired their concerns on the matter.

Now, the FCC has decided to clear the air on firmware upgrades to wireless routers. There was a fair bit of confusion in the original document, given the wording, “how [its] device is protected from ‘flashing’ and the installation of third-party firmware such as DD-WRT.” This appeared to mandate wholesale blocking of Open Source firmware on devices, with no suggestion as to how manufacturers would accomplish this impossible task.

[Julias Knapp], chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology has since clarified the Commission’s position. In response to the deluge of comments to the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the phrase, ‘protected from flashing… Open Source firmware” has been removed from the upcoming regulation. There’s new, narrow wording (PDF) in this version that better completes the Commission’s goal of stopping overpowered radios without encroching on the Open Source firmware scene. The people spoke, and the FCC listened — democracy at work.

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.