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.
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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!

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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.

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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