The mystery of WiFi channel 14

By Chris Tilbury

It’s one of the most annoying things related to technology; waking up in the morning to find your internet is operating painfully slowly or not working at all. Logging in to the account you have with the service provider can help solve the problem, you can look at all the networks in your local area and the channels that they operate on and choose one of the less favoured options.

You’ll be presented with the ability to choose one of the available channels, 13 if you live in the UK or in Asia (except Japan and Taiwan). 11 channels are available in the Americas and Taiwan, but Japan allows people to use the fourteenth channel.

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Channel 14 operates at the highest end of the Wi-Fi frequency spectrum from 2.472 GHz onwards and is only compatible with equipment designed to work with 802.11b routers, though they have largely been phased out.

It is still possible to access the fourteenth Wi-Fi channel, though it can only be done by modifying the router that supplies the internet connection and changing the setting the country to Japan. Even then it’s not always possible.

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, has actually banned access to channel 14. The organisation stated in a 2005 presentation: “regardless of the levels, a device may not operate in a restricted band”. The presentation then goes on to dictate “operation on channel 14 is not allowed.”

Why is it banned?

The band, with a centre frequency of 2.48GHz, is known as the Industrial Scientific and Medical, or ISM, band and can be picked up worldwide. The most common device that operates on the frequency is the microwave oven, which supposedly works at 2.45GHz.

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It’s not known whether the signal received from channel 14 affects microwaves or vice versa. We presume that the heavy restrictions on the use of the range are the result of its use by the military and communications satellites to transmit signals around the globe.

Using channel 14, or any of the other channels for that matter, could cause some interference with moderate range surveillance equipment, air traffic control, weather satellites and marine radar. The impact won’t be devastating though as the signal strength wouldn’t be so large as to do any serious harm. In fact, the majority of the ‘S’ frequency band is just out of reach of laptops.

However, with some modification and performance enhancement it may well be possible to adjust the frequencies available to wireless routers and laptops so the wider frequencies can be accessed. In fact with some expert programming and enhancements the ‘X’ band is not out of reach.

The ‘X’ band, so named because of its secrecy during World War 2 is used by missile guidance systems, marine radar and airport radar, as well as short range tracking and ground surveillance.

Though the channel is banned the consequences of using the restricted channel are not specified. It is considered a felony due to its illegality though it seems unlikely that the FCC will come knocking on your door.

Manufacturers like Apple have blocked people from accessing the illegal channel by limiting the AirPort card in computers to the country of sale. Only by changing the AirPort card or the Base Station can users of Apple products access the channel.