TP-Link fined $200k, told to be nice to wireless router tinkers after throwing a hissy fit

Chinese biz told to pour water, baby back into bath tub

TP-Link will cough up a $200,000 fine to America's broadband regulator the FCC – and has agreed to let people tinker with the firmware in its 5GHz wireless routers.

On Monday, the networking gear biz admitted [PDF] it broke US rules on radio frequency use by providing a setting in its Wi-Fi kit that ramped up the power output beyond the limits set by the FCC. Basically, you told the router you were not in America, and that unlocked an extra boost in the 2.4GHz space. Hardware sold in the US should not be able to do that.

When the FCC confronted TP-Link about this loophole, the Chinese manufacturer went ballistic: it pulled several router models from sale in the US, and said its equipment sold in America from June 2 will not allow people to install custom firmware.

It also sent out software updates to devices already in use to disable the power boost and also block the installation of tweaked firmware.

Why so anti-customization? Well, last year, the FCC proposed new rules banning wireless router makers from allowing people to reprogram their devices to transmit outside the watchdog's limits on power and frequency bands in the 5GHz space.

With this in mind, and rather than coming up with a technical solution, TP-Link simply killed off all custom firmware for its routers sold in the US.

That reaction was a little over-the-top. Now, TP-Link has paid a fine for the dodgy power setting, and agreed to let people flash custom firmware – such as OpenWRT – on its 5GHz hardware with safeguards in place to ensure the installed software cannot drive the devices beyond FCC limits.

"The commission's equipment rules strike a careful balance of spurring innovation while protecting against harmful interference," FCC enforcement bureau chief Travis LeBlanc said of the settlement.

"While manufacturers of Wi-Fi routers must ensure reasonable safeguards to protect radio parameters, users are otherwise free to customize their routers and we support TP-Link's commitment to work with the open source community and Wi-Fi chipset manufacturers to enable third-party firmware on TP-Link routers."

TP-Link will have two years to bring all of its 5GHz Wi-Fi products sold and marketed in the US into compliance with the settlement – ie: allow people to install custom firmware with protections in place to prevent any tampering with the radio's broadcasting parameters. That's good news for fans of open-source router firmware. ®

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