July 6, 2007

The FCC, FOSS, and software radios: a mixed bag

Author: Shirl Kennedy

While the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations about software-defined radios don't really restrict independent FOSS developers, the rules are "more conservative than is necessary" because of perceived security issues, according to a white paper released today by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC).

Joseph Mitola, the acknowledged "father" of software-define radio, coined the term back in 1991 to refer to a wireless communications device whose functions are controlled mainly by software rather than hardware. Among other pluses, SDRs are configurable "on the fly," which makes them ideal for critical situations where communications parameters are constantly changing. Currently, they are used mainly in cell phones and wireless cards.

After studying the new rules -- published in the Federal Register last month and taking effect today -- the SFLC concluded that the laws are not FOSS-restrictive because they "apply to hardware manufacturers who distribute SDR devices, regardless if they use FOSS in them or not." And the Center says that since the rules specifically mention the GNU/Linux operating system, the FCC is actually acknowledging the importance of open source.

And yet, according to the white paper, the FCC's recognition does not exactly constitute a ringing endorsement, in as much as "it discourages use of FOSS in the 'hardware and software security elements' of SDR devices by stating that systems 'wholly dependent on open source elements' would have a 'high burden' to demonstrate their security during the certification process." CNet News goes so far as to call this an out-and-out "snub."

The nonprofit SDR Forum, whose 100+ corporate members work to promote the development and adaptation of SDR technologies, submitted a Petition for Reconsideration (PDF; 40 KB) to the FCC last week, which asks that the FCC modify its stated policy forbidding companies from discussing "security mechanisms" openly, and that the agency "should remain neutral on the security of open source elements because, a priori, open source approaches are no less secure than proprietary techniques."

This is not strictly a technical issue, by the way. The issue has political implications as well. "Free software for building radios is troublesome to some people," says Eric Blossom, the creative and technical force behind the GNU Radio Project. He specifically mentions the Motion Picture Association of America as well as...the FCC.

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