Ask Dan: Illegal network wiring?

Date: 18 March 2007
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Re this Skymaster networking kit - I thought there were laws in Australia making this illegal to use even in your home unless you are correctly licensed?


I don't think there's anything illegal in Australia - or in most other countries - about doing your own network wiring, per se. You may invalidate your home insurance if you do it in an incompetent way - by, for instance, wiring up your house with non-plenum-rated cable that later allows a fire to burn through from one room to another - but DIY network wiring runs are not, in themselves, illegal.

But then again, most of them are, technically, illegal - at least, here in Australia.

What makes DIY in-wall LAN wiring illegal in Australia is if you connect your in-wall network to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Any network that's connected to the phone lines, by for instance an ADSL Internet connection, becomes subject to Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) regulations and now must have been installed by a "registered cabler". Who must hold, as you say, the appropriate license.

(PDF about rules that have to be followed here; more standards info here. The regulations talk about distribution frames and patch panels and such, which is your hint that they're aimed at commercial premises, not Joe Citizen running a 1000BaseT wire from his home office to the living room.)

The ACMA is the same body which straight-facedly required people to buy licenses for their home wireless LANs, until September 2002. To a first approximation, nobody did. Oh, and if the bloke next door pays you ten bucks a month to check his e-mail on your wireless network, the ACMA would probably, technically, still like a word with you.

This is, of course, stupid. It's like the old Telecom rules for devices connected to the phone system, in which "connected" was defined so broadly that a transistor radio could in theory be said to require Telecom approval, if you listened to radio call-in programs with it.

In the real world, nobody was Telecom-licensing radios in 1985, and the ACMA does not care one jot about what kind of network cabling you do in your home or small business as long as you do not manage to introduce weird voltages onto the PSTN.

There are plenty of ways in which cack-handed amateurs can screw up thrillingly when wiring a house. Usually they go straight for the old classics like nailing mains cabling to wall studs, but there are a plethora of less spectacular ways to mess up even a low-voltage, close-to-zero-power setup like a home Ethernet installation.

Many of those ways involve unexpected interactions with the existing mains cabling. If you're talented enough, such mistakes actually can mean your network delivers power to the PSTN. It's pretty much impossible for that to happen without blowing up every piece of your gear the volts hit on the way, though; network cards and routers and so on have their own regulatory requirements that make them quite strongly resistant to such shenanigans.

More commonly, crappy home installs just have stupid mechanical problems that mean the network will go flaky at some point in the future. Wall insulation hanging off un-conduited cables, miles of extra cable spaghettied up inside the walls or dangling onto the damp foundations under the house, et cetera.

Note that if network cabling doesn't run through your walls, under your floor or over your ceiling, then the ACMA doesn't care. The gear connected to your network all still has to have the usual regulatory approvals, but as long as the cable is just draped over the floor (or under the carpet), then it can have been "installed" by a kindergarten class and you're still fine.

The purpose of regulations such as these, in Australia and elsewhere, is to reduce the number of amazing and horrifying things lurking inside residential walls, and to reduce the number of miserably broken large commercial networking installations, by nominating objective standards to which incompetent installers can be legally held.

There are still plenty of awful unlicensed installations out there, and not a few completely hopeless licensed contractors. But that's not the fault of the regulations. The ACMA is, also, not driving around in LAN Detector Vans or something looking for unlicensed installations. It's not bothered about home networking kits on sale, either, any more than it's losing sleep over people who bring their UL-listed laptop here from the States and plug its not-technically-licensed-for-Australia modem into our dinkum Aussie phone system.

You can, after all, also buy various electrical wall plates and light sockets and so on in hardware stores and supermarkets all over Australia. Most of those things are, technically, illegal to install if you're not an electrician. If you do the job right anyway, though - or just don't die when you run your fridge from a light socket - there's a de facto "no harm, no foul" rule. Once again, insurance companies may take a dim view, but the long arm of the law has bigger fish to fry.

Don't go punching holes in your house and pulling cables around the place if you've got no idea what's between Hole A and Hole B. And, if you are without relevant clues, doing your own mains wiring can be very false economy indeed.

But it's still not very hard for a moderately handy human to install their own in-wall LAN wiring, with no fear of ending up in the pokey as a result.

Aus PC Market's network cable kit is not a bad deal at all for $AU77 delivered, since it includes tools and instructions as well as wire and jacks and even made-up patch cables. Australian shoppers can click here to order it.

Note that if the ACMA busts you, Aus PC's warranty will not cover bailing you out.