Friday, July 31, 2015

Parental Internet Control - pcWRT as an alternative to Skydog

I'm writing this post basically as a shout out to pcWRT.  This router seems to be a very new product with very little information out there regarding it.  I ordered one as a replacement for our Skydog router, and it works well, but I was hesitant to order it because there was so little information available.  Their website is basic, and the forum section is, as yet, unpopulated by users.  Was it a scam?  No it's not. 

Here's our history of trying to keep our kids "safe" on the internet.  My preference was to keep our kids off the computer for as long as possible.  The school system was not very helpful in that regard.  Why do elementary schools feel they need to teach children "computer skills"?  That is patently ridiculous and ultimately, I believe it's damaging.  Little children should be out collecting leaves, watching snails, drawing with crayons, playing with mud.  You do not need to learn how to use a mouse when you are eight years old.  Elementary schools should not have computer labs.  That is my number one complaint about public education, (and it probably applies to private as well).  My other big complaint is the amount of sugar floating around elementary schools.  My little tiny kids would bring home 2 liter bottles of soda as prizes for things, and there were always cupcakes and candy around because it was always someone or other's birthday.

So our kids quickly became more screen-centric.  My internet-free summers did not last for very many years, and eventually, the kids needed to be on the internet for homework, and so on.  Every parent knows the story.  They had iPods, laptops, Chromebooks, eventually phones.  The old wisdom was to have one computer in a central location in the home where you could see what your children were doing.  However, with everyone watching conflicting shows on Netflix, or streaming music videos on Youtube, etc., that just wasn't going to work.  I'd much prefer having my children in their rooms reading Salinger and listening to the radio, but the digital world really rules the day, particularly if they are immersed in the culture of their peers.

We gave the kids all the standard warnings about cyber-stalkers and assorted creeps - never give your personal information out online.  We were not too worried about their internet use though.

When our daughter was 11 or 12, a friend offered to give her a copy of a book on sexuality that she had sitting around.  I can't find it on Amazon at the moment - I thought it was called "A Grrl's Guide to Her Body."  We thought that was fine.  Our friend didn't really look through it.  We didn't look through it.  It may have been a sloppy parenting moment.  The book went a little beyond the average things you would like your young child to know, moving more into Dan Savage territory.

Shortly thereafter, I was looking at my daughter's iPod Touch's internet history, (the time-honored parenting technique of snooping), and found that she had been watching hard core pornography on her iPod.  I deleted her browser, had a chat with her - discovering that she was researching some of the content covered in the book, and I installed OpenDNS and another software-based parental control program.

I kept an eye on what was being blocked by OpenDNS.  With two teenage children, I expected a certain amount of unsavory internet content to be blocked, but as my son got older, there was a surge in various disturbing websites.  I have a feeling that some of them came from clicking on Google Image search results, which cannot be blocked by OpenDNS or by Skydog.

I had another chat with both of them, and I ordered a Skydog router.  To some extent, at that point, it had more to do with conveying to them that I cared about what they were exposing themselves to by making some effort to curate what they could see.  I also really liked the fact the Skydog router could turn off their internet access at night.  I know from my own experience as an adult that it is easy to keep watching Netflix or YouTube or whatever.  We generally go to sleep before our kids - that was one of the biggest surprises of parenting.  Knowing that the internet will be turned off is reassuring.

I won't go too far into Skydog.  The product has been discontinued, though they are honoring the three year service contracts for those who bought the router before the parent company was sold.  Having a router-based system of parental control is essential with all the various devices most people have.  The software we had installed on their laptops, for example, would not work on their Chromebooks, nor on the iPod Touches, nor the eventual cell phones. Skydog is, or was, cloud based.  You set up your schedules for each user on a web interface, and it was pushed to the modem.  Skydog was acquired by Comcast a year or so ago, and they stopped selling their routers.

Other than Skydog's slide toward probable obsolescence at the end of the contract period, we were also having trouble with the connection being dropped.  My son also seems to have discovered that he can disable Skydog by plugging the Ethernet cable from the modem/router into one of the outgoing ports on  the Skydog router.  For some reason, that would maintain the wireless signal the kids tapped into, but it disabled ours, and bypassed the router rules.  I don't know if there are instructions online, or if he discovered it by happenstance, or if he is even aware of what he did, (though I strongly suspect he does).  I filled in the outbound Ethernet slots with silicone, an that stopped that.

I found the pcWRT router while searching for a Skydog replacement.  I've replaced the modem/router (from our ISP) combined with Skydog with a standalone aDSL modem and the pcWRT router.

You configure the pcWRT router directly.  I actually like that better than having a cloud based solution, and you can configure it over wifi, but you have to be on its network.  It does basically the same things, but as an additional bonus, it can enforce Google Safe Search.  If you have young children, get this router and get them used to using safe search on their own devices.  I haven't experimented very much, but I think it will block a lot of the objectionable Google Image searches.

Unfortunately, it also blocked most of the music videos on YouTube my 13 year old son likes to watch.  He was very unhappy, and very snarky, about the curated results he was getting.  (He's very fond of "Carry On My Wayward Son" right now.  With Safe Search, all he could get on YouTube were people learning to play it on the guitar).  I agreed that it was a bit extreme and turned it off for him.  But I wish I had started using Safe Search when they were 5, and that was all they knew.

pcWRT also blocks the use of proxy servers, so they can't do an end run around OpenDNS.

The calendar works backwards from what I expected.  You block off the times things are allowed, not the time things should be blocked.  I had set time for them to sleep by making a calendar with no sites listed, and then blocked off the night, but that banned all sites during the daytime.  I had to go back and change the selected parts of the calendar to the daytime.  pcWRT allows you to do that textually, and I found that easier than dragging the slider.

Another good thing, at the moment, is that the pcWRT router has no identifying marks on it.  So far, I have refused to tell my son what the router is.  There's no way to know it is a pcWRT router, and so you cannot search for a way to bypass it.  (My son may find out on this blog, but that's OK).  It is also so new, that searching "pcWRT bypass" does not bring anything up. 

I know this is not a thorough review.  The router's controls are not as fine-grained as Skydog's, nor does it have a reporting function or a bandwidth limitation function, but it does the basics very well.  We have not had any dropped connections with our new setup, and I'm very happy with the product.


  1. I would like to add a postscript to this post. Xiaodong Zhang, the developer of pcWRT, read this post when I sent him the link. He agreed that the curating rules for YouTube seem a little extreme and sent me an update to the firmware so that now, the Google Safe Search, and the YouTube Restricted Mode are separated. Currently, I have Google Safe Search checked and have heard no complaints.

    I'm tempted to sit here and enter crude terms to see how well Safe Search blocks image results. There is something both embarrassing and juvenile about doing that for a long list of words. However, I tried one term . . . Google returned definitions, some content, various images of T-shirts and posters reading "Don't be a C**T" but did not return any pornography. I'm sure Safe Search has its drawbacks, but I'm pleased that it doesn't completely censor the term, but rather tries to weed out the darkest manifestations of the human psyche online.

  2. Thanks for this review. We have Skydog and have been fairly pleased with its functionality. But our three-year subscription service will be up soon and with three teenagers in the house (one of whom seems hellbent on breaking any and every rule we put in place), I am looking for a replacement for Skydog. So far, I'm liking what little I can find out about pcWRT.

  3. Thanks for this write up, I've just purchased a pcWRT based mostly on your review, as there is precious little info on it online. I've tried software based solutions and well they just don't work.

  4. Thanks for the review. I do seminars on safe internet protocols for schools, churches, small businesses, etc. and have been researching router based solutions for years. I have purchased and tested nearly every model on the market. I just saw pcWRT, but am worried that I can't seem to get any responses from the website, the blog, or the forum. Do you know if they have gone defunct? You can see all my reviews at

  5. To my knowledge, they have not gone defunct. I have been getting firmware updates emailed to me fairly regularly. I'll try the email I have for the developer and see what's up.

    1. Thanks...I'm going to go ahead and order one to try...I have become rather jaded in my expectations due to really poor/odd/missing feature sets. Hopefully this one will be a bit better...

  6. He's definitely still up and running and recently launched the router on Amazon.

  7. Came across this while looking for alternatives to skydog. Thx for the detailed writeup!

    Recommendation re: the sneaky ethernet cable. 1.) if I catch you doing this, you will lose all screens for 3 months. ;-)
    2.) Lockable plastic box with the router and dsl/cable modem inside. Plastic, because metal would effectively be a farraday cage, blocking all wifi.

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