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 ( 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.

Review: HUZZAH is the ESP8266 WiFi Setup You Need

A little board that adds WiFi to any project for a few hundreds of pennies has been all the rage for at least half a year. I am referring to the ESP8266 and this product is a marrige of one of those WiFi modules with the support hardware required to get it running. This week I’m reviewing the HUZZAH ESP8266 Breakout by Adafruit Industries.

If you saw the article [cnlohr] woite for us about direct programming this board you will know that a good chunk of that post covered what you need to do just to get the module into programming mode. This required adding a regulated 3.3V source, and a way to pull one of the pins to ground when resetting the power rail. Not only does the HUZZAH take care of that for you, it turns the non-breadboard friendly module into a DIP form factor while breaking out way more pins than the most common module offers. All of this and the price tag is just $9.95. Join me after the break for the complete run-down.

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FCC Creates Innovation Radio, The Future Of Wireless Broadband

Thirty years ago there was a lot of unused spectrum in the 900MHz,  2.4GHz, and 5.2GHz bands. They were licensed for industrial, scientific, and medical uses since their establishment in 1947. But by the 1980s, these bands were identified as being underused. Spectrum is a valuable resource, and in 1985, the FCC first allowed unlicensed, spread spectrum use of these bands. Anyone who has ever configured a router will know the importance of this slice of spectrum: they’re the backbone of WiFi and 4G. If you’re not connected to the Internet through an Ethernet cable, you have the FCC Commissioners and chairpersons in 1985 to thank for that.

Last week, the FCC unanimously voted to allow the use of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band with the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. This opens up 150 MHz of spectrum from 3550 – 3700MHz for new wireless broadband services. If history repeats itself, you will be connecting to the Internet with the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in a few years.

While the April 17th FCC meeting was the formal creation of the CBRS, this is something that has been in the works for a very long time. The band was originally proposed back in 2012 when portions of spectrum were, like the ISM bands back in the 80s, identified as being underused. Right now, the 3.5GHz band is being used for US military radars and aeronautical navigation, but new advances in frequency management as outlined by commissioner [Clyburn] will allow these to coexist with the CBRS. In the words of Chairman [Wheeler], “computer systems can act like spectrum traffic cops.”

Access to the 3.5GHz spectrum will be divided into three levels. The highest tier, incumbent access, will be reserved for the institutions already using it – military radars and aeronautical radio. The second tier, priority access, will be auctioned and licensed by the FCC for broadband providers via Priority Access Licenses (PALs). The final tier, general authorized access, will be available for you and me, provided the spectrum isn’t already allocated to higher tiers. This is an unprecedented development in spectrum allocation and an experiment to see if this type of spectrum allocation leads to more utilization.

There are, however, unanswered questions. Commissioner [O’Rielly] has said the three-year license with no renewable expectancy could limit commercial uptake of PALs. Some commentors have claimed the protocols necessary for the CBRS to coexist with WiFi devices does not exist.

Still, the drumbeat demanding more and more spectrum marches on, and 2/3rds of the 150MHz made available under this order was previously locked up for the exclusive use of the Defense Department. Sharing spectrum between various users is the future, and in this case has the nice bonus of creating a free citizens band radio service.

You can read the full order here, or watch the stream of the April 17th meeting.

ESP Gets FCC and CE

The ESP8266 Internet of Things module is the latest and greatest thing to come out of China. It’s ideal for turning plastic Minecraft blocks into Minecraft servers, making your toilet tweet, or for some bizarre home automation scheme. This WiFi module is not, however, certified by the FCC. The chipset, on the other hand, is.

Having a single module that’s able to run code, act as a UART to WiFi transceiver, peek and poke a few GPIOs, all priced at about $4 is a game changer, and all your favorite silicon companies are freaking out wondering how they’re going to beat the ESP8266. Now the chipset is FCC certified, the first step to turning these modules into products.

This announcement does come with a few caveats: the chipset is certified, not the module. Each version of the module must be certified by itself, and there are versions that will never be certified by the FCC. Right now, we’re looking at the ESP8266-06, -07, -08, and -12 modules – the ones with a metal shield – as being the only ones that could potentially pass an FCC cert. Yes, those modules already have an FCC logo on them, but you’re looking at something sold for under $5 in China, here.

Anyone wanting to build a product with the ESP will, of course, also need to certify it with the FCC. This announcement hasn’t broken down any walls, but it has cracked a window.

Retrotechtacular: Ma Bell’s Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS)

This gem from the AT&T Archive does a good job of explaining the first-generation cellular technology that AT&T called Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS). The hexagon-cellular network design was first conceived at Bell Labs in 1947. After a couple of decades spent pestering the FCC, AT&T was awarded the 850MHz band in the late 1970s. It was this decision coupled with the decades worth of Bell System technical improvements that gave cellular technology the bandwidth and power to really come into its own.

AT&T’s primary goals for the AMPS network were threefold: to provide more service to more people, to improve service quality, and to lower the cost to subscribers. Early mobile network design gave us the Mobile Service Area, or MSA. Each high-elevation transmitter could serve a 20-mile radius of subscribers, a range which constituted one MSA. In the mid-1940s, only 21 channels could be used in the 35MHz and 150MHz band allocations. The 450MHz band was introduced in 1952, provided another 12 channels.

repeated channelsThe FCC’s allocation opened a whopping 666 channels in the neighborhood of 850MHz. Bell Labs’ hexagonal innovation sub-divided the MSAs into cells, each with a radius of up to ten miles.

The film explains quite well that in this arrangement, each cell set of seven can utilize all 666 channels. Cells adjacent to each other in the set must use different channels, but any cell at least 100 miles away can use the same channels. Furthermore, cells can be subdivided or split. Duplicate frequencies are dealt with through the FM capture effect in which the weaker signal is suppressed.

Those Bell System technical improvements facilitated the electronic switching that takes place between the Mobile Telephone Switching Office (MTSO) and the POTS landline network. They also realized the automatic control features required of the AMPS project, such as vehicle location and automatic channel assignment. The film concludes its lecture with step-by-step explanations of inbound and outbound call setup where a mobile device is concerned.

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Net Neutrality: FCC Hack is a Speed Bump on the Internet Fast Lane

Net neutrality is one of those topics we’ve been hearing more and more about in recent years. The basic idea of net neutrality is that all Internet traffic should be treated equally no matter what. It shouldn’t matter if it’s email, web sites, or streaming video. It shouldn’t matter if the traffic is coming from Wikipedia, Netflix, Youtube, etc. It shouldn’t matter which Internet Service Provider you choose. This is the way the Internet has worked since it’s inception. Of course, not everyone agrees that this is how things should stay. We didn’t always have the technology to filter and classify traffic. Now that it’s here, some believe that we should be able to classify internet traffic and treat it differently based on that classification.

It seems like much of the tech savvy community argues that net neutrality is a “given right” of the Internet. They believe that it’s the way the Internet has always been, and always should be. The other side of the argument is generally lobbied by Internet service providers. They argue that ISP’s have the right to classify Internet traffic that flows through their equipment and treat it differently if they so choose. As for everyone else, just about everyone these days relies on the Internet for business, banking, and entertainment but many of those people have no idea how the Internet works, nor do they really care. It’s like the electricity in their home or the engine in their car. As long as it’s working properly that’s all that matters to them. If they can check Facebook on their phone while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix in full HD, why should they care how that stuff gets prioritized? It work’s doesn’t it? Continue reading “Net Neutrality: FCC Hack is a Speed Bump on the Internet Fast Lane”