Putting the “F” in “FCC”

Ars Technica reported earlier this month that Comcast is bringing an app to Roku. Cool! Now people who want to use their Roku instead of a set-top box for cable can do that. Here’s the trick: once it exits “beta”, Comcast will charge users an outlet fee — essentially treating it the same as an additional set-top box.

What Comcast is doing, then, is charging its customers for the privilege of watching the content they already pay for. I can understand their reasoning: it could lead to additional simultaneous viewings, which means more bandwidth. But given the cable industry’s history of unfriendliness to the consumer, I’m not inclined to be sympathetic. Futhermore, given the trend toward cord-cutting, it seems to be in the cable providers’ best interests to not alienate an increasingly disinterested customer base.

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler favored a rule that would require cable providers to make such an app available for free. It did not pass and the new chariman, Ajit Pai, has no interest in pursuing it. Many in the tech community worried when Wheeler came on board (he had been a cable industry lobbyist), he turned out pretty well. Pai was a Verizon lawyer before joining the FCC in 2012, but I have less hope of him becoming a consumer advocate.

Pai opposes net neutrality, which is a philosophy that has been the foundation for the Internet. De-regulation of an oligopoly, which the ISP market unquestionably is, will spur entrenchment, not innovation. The FCC will likely become much more favorably to industry than to consumer, and that is a real disappointment.

Wireless spectrum versus the Internet

Last month, The Register reported on a new OpenWRT release. OpenWRT is a Linux distribution designed to be installed on embedded devices like routers. It, along with other third-party firmware projects like Tomato and DD-WRT, offers users more flexibility than the original firmware. They often get updates long after the first-party firmware, and can provide a more stable system. For example, I had a Linksys WRT-54G that was starting to get flaky, to the point where I had to power cycle it every day or so. After installing OpenWRT, it became much more reliable.

I lay out the benefits of third-party firmware, because the El Reg article brought to my attention a document published by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The guidelines, last updated in March of this year, outline the security questions device manufacturers should answer in their Part 15 application. Part 15 refers to the section of U.S. regulations that deals with unlicensed radio frequency (RF) transmission (including WiFi). The document says, in part:

An applicant must describe the overall security measures and systems that ensure that:

1. only properly authenticated software is loaded and operating the device; and
2. the device is not easily modified to operate with RF parameters outside of the authorization.

These requirements are antithetical to the ideals of open source and the user freedom it is committed to promote. As an amateur radio operator, I am sensitive to the concerns regarding spectrum pollution. Part 15 devices can be a pain for licensed portions of the RF spectrum anyway, and allowing devices to be easily modified to transmit outside their intended band presents a real threat to licensed radio services, including public safety and aviation.

Essentially, it comes down to protecting wireless spectrum (by preventing unlicensed transmission) versus protecting Internet users (by allowing for more security updates and external auditing of the code running on routers). These are both legitimate concerns, and I’d advocate for either of them independently. When they’re pitted against each other, though, I have to side with free software.

Regardless of the technological restrictions put in place to prevent unlicensed transmission, they can be circumvented. The entire history of technology is a history of restrictions and circumventions. Additionally, the ability to (responsibly) modify and experiment with hardware is an important part of innovation. The updates and configuration flexibility of third-party firmware provide a real benefit (though I naively assume that a non-trivial portion of devices will get such firmware) against everyday threats. Given the choice, my choice is clear. I hope the FCC will come to agree with me.