Reprogrammble routers axed by TP-Link as FCC bans custom firmware

Wi-Fi boxes will be locked down to stop folks installing software on their own hardware

Network gear maker TP-Link will no longer allow people to install customized firmware on its Wi-Fi routers in the US – and the FCC is to blame.

In a brief statement and FAQ published this week, TP-Link – which is based in Shenzhen, China – said the FCC's revised rules on radio-based equipment makes user reprogrammable firmware illegal in America, and therefore it cannot sell in the US routers that can be re-flashed by their owners.

"Devices sold in the United States will have firmware and wireless settings that ensure compliance with local laws and regulations related to transmission power," TP-Link said. "As a result of these necessary changes, users are not able to flash the current generation of open-source, third-party firmware."

The problem boils down to this: the FCC's job is to make sure devices only operate on the radio frequencies they are licensed to use. Equipment, such as home wireless routers, that can be reprogrammed by their owners can be potentially configured to operate on unauthorized frequencies – a big no-no for the FCC.

The regulator's ban on re-flashing firmware is at odds with manufacturers that want to give tinkerers the ability to customize and tune the software on their hardware. While TP-Link can still release firmware updates for its devices, assuming they meet the FCC's rules on using frequencies, ordinary citizens aren't trusted to install their own code.

The FCC earlier backed off a bit on the matter, but maintains it will not allow devices that can be re-flashed to operate outside authorized radio frequency bands. TP-Link, however, said the FCC rules as they stand will not allow it to offer people the ability to reprogram their router firmware.

Of course, the manufacturer could design its hardware in a way that would stop user-installed firmware from changing the frequencies used by the radio electronics, which would suit the FCC. But that probably looks like too much hard work to TP-Link. Welcome to the world of low margins and high volumes.

"The FCC requires all manufacturers to prevent users from having any direct ability to change RF [radio frequency] parameters (frequency limits, output power, country codes, etc)," TP-Link stated. "In order to keep our products compliant with these implemented regulations, TP-LINK is distributing devices that feature country-specific firmware."

TP-Link did not expressly state that it will still offer reprogrammable routers in other countries, but it did note "this particular regulation affects routers marketed and sold in the US."

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. ®

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