The wireless router world remains safe for open source -- at least for users of certain Linksys Wi-Fi devices, which will still allow the installation of open source firmware like DD-WRT after new FCC rules take effect next week.
Here's the back story: Last fall, the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) introduced new regulations that required device manufacturers to ensure "that third parties are not able to reprogram the device to operate outside the parameters for which the device was certified." Those rules go into effect June 2.
The policy appeared aimed mostly at preventing wireless routers from operating on frequencies or with transmission power settings for which they were not authorized.
The FCC rules did not explicitly ban Linux-based open source firmwares, such as DD-WRT or Tomato. But they raised doubts about the future legality of such firmwares, since they generally allows users to access features that are not available from the official software that manufacturers ship with wireless routers. Those features include the ability to configure unauthorized radio frequencies and transmission power.
TP-Link, one major wireless router manufacturer, seemed to confirm those doubts in March, when it signaled that it would ban open source firmwares that allow modification of wireless settings.
Marketing Open Source
But Linksys has adopted a different tact by announcing that certain models of its routers -- specifically, those sold under the WRT brand -- will remain compatible with open source firmware, as Ars Technica first reported.
Linksys, which was acquired by Belkin in 2013, is pitching the offering as a way to fulfill what one of its executives called "almost our responsibility to the open source community." That's interesting, since it's a sign that the company sees a significant enough market in the open source community to engineer special hardware features that appeal to open source users who want to tweak their devices.
It seems a safe bet that the decision is more about symbolism than direct profit. As with most open source projects whose products are freely shared, it's hard to determine how many people actually use open source firmwares like DD-WRT or Tomato. But it's unlikely that they account for more than a tiny fraction of Linksys's overall customer base.
Linksys's open source marketing move can't hurt, as long as open source fans don't mind a small catch: Although third-party firmwares will remain compatible with new Linksys WRT routers, users won't be able to modify the device configuration in ways that violate the FCC policy. Certain parts of the configuration will remain locked down even if a third-party operating system is installed.
Another limitation is that other Linksys routers will not support firmware modifications. Only the WRT line will offer that feature.
Still, given that other router companies seem to be making little effort to keep both the open source community and the FCC happy at the same time, Linksys is poised to come out ahead by treating open source users as a distinct and valuable market.