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The (good and bad) future of the Internet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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SAN DIEGO—“We know even now that we are at some fundamental limits of what the Internet can handle,” warned University of California, San Diego processor kc claffy [sic capitalization] at the beginning of her talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego. “We have one big expectation—being able to innovate,” she said. “And it is unclear whether we will be able to do that.”

claffy’s warnings are based on the observation that the Internet’s infrastructure is, for the most part, hidden. In the U.S. there are on the order of one hundred Internet service providers that control the fiber lines and the routers that direct traffic throughout the network. Each of these ISPs has agreements with the others to exchange traffic. In essence, these agreements say if you move my bits, I’ll move yours. However, all these agreements are not just independent and unregulated, they’re secret. Proprietary corporate information. This makes it impossible to understand how traffic will get redirected when, say, one path fails. It makes it impossible to understand just how strong the overall system is when something goes wrong. It makes it impossible to map the overall structure of the Internet (something intensely frustrating to claffy, whose job it is to map the overall structure of the Internet). And it also makes it difficult to predict how the Internet will grow.

One thing is for sure, though: The Internet will continue to grow. We just don’t know if the current system for addressing content on the Internet will be able to accommodate this growth. Every location on the Internet—every web site, every user—has associated with it a specific address, called an Internet Protocol (IP) address. The current addressing system—called IPv4—has about four billion possible addresses. The Internet is expected to outgrow this batch of addresses in about two years. For decades researchers have been working on the next generation of addresses—the IPv6 system—which has approximately enough addresses to last until the heat death of the universe. But IPv6 and IPv4 are not compatible, so anyone working with a new IPv6 address would not be able to access Web sites using old IPv4 addresses. “Everyone would have to switch at the same time—Google, Verizon, everyone” claffy told me after her presentation. Yet a massive instantaneous global switchover of the Internet’s entire addressing system is, in short, unlikely.

Irwin Jacobs, the CEO and co-founder of Qualcomm, also spoke regarding the spread of the wireless Internet. He started out with some figures that underscored the estimates of the Internet’s rapid growth. According to Google, he said, half of all Internet connections today come from mobile devices, and the mobile web adoption and growth rates today are eight times what wireline-based adaptation was ten years ago. According to one estimate by Ericsson, the number of wirelessly connected devices worldwide will rise from an estimated 4.6 billion today to 50 billion by 2020. This would be around seven devices for every man, woman and child on the planet. (Jacobs later clarified that he thought these numbers were “ambitious.”)

One well-publicized challenge of mobile 3G networks is dealing with the ever-increasing amounts of video coming through the system. “Video to phones accounts for half the bits now,” he said. One option to reduce strain on 3G networks is expanding the portion of the wireless spectrum used to distribute content. An example of how this could work is FLO TV, a service from Qualcomm that uses the old UHF channel 55 to broadcast over 20 channels to wireless devices. The system is now in place in 68 metropolitan areas, he said.

Whatever happens going forward, the Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming Broadband Access Plan, expected in two weeks, will surely shape the landscape of the Internet over the years to come. Let’s hope it can cope with the growth.

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  1. 1. underwms 3:06 pm 02/22/2010

    Yeah as soon as the FCC’s broadband play goes into effect along with the recently passed cyber security act you can expect free speech on the internet to disappear China style.

    And wait until the lovely Google builds its own high-speed broadband network, coincidentally the same time IPv6 is supposed to hit, you can expect big brother to exponentially grow in the amount of information they keep on you. Google is already in bed with the National Security Agency.

    Future of the internet == not good.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tharriss 4:55 pm 02/22/2010

    Yah underwms, and those dang telephones… one wired to each house… well people can just call right into your house any time they like! I bet those G-Men are using those wires to snoop into our lives all the time… we should go back to smoke signals and writing letters…. no wait… the GOVERMENT delivers letters…. I bet they read them all…. just stick to smoke signals.

    And cars? Sure they’re faster than horses (most of the time) but you have to REGISTER them with the GOVERNMENT…. and get a license to drive…. BIG BROTHER has taken control of us because we switched to driving cars…. the world is going to end!

    Every step of technology just steals all our privacy and rights… think how much happier we’d all be living 200 years ago…. ah those were the days!

    Link to this
  3. 3. hotblack 5:04 pm 02/22/2010

    The reign of the pirates draws near.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Crucialitis 12:20 am 02/23/2010

    "This would be around seven devices for every man, woman and child on the planet."

    When you have contacts with displays in them, every device with a camera is another pair of eyes for you to look through. As more of our senses become simulated, I’d imagine people will have all sorts of devices extending and augmenting their senses.

    On top of that, when augmented reality eventually becomes immersive our parallel universes of virtual realities will need some address to call home.

    Link to this
  5. 5. alexmanica 2:25 am 02/23/2010

    The switch over IPv6 is not likely to be "all at the same time". There are providers already offering native IPv6 (like Titan DSL in Germany, which offers IPv6 and IPv4 at the same time, and Hurricane Electric in the US) and several tunnels like "6to4", "Nat64" etc. have been created for the usage of IPv6 through IPv4 infrastructure and vice versa.

    Link to this
  6. 6. xyleneuk 6:50 am 02/23/2010

    never heard of duel stack?
    IPV6 tunnels run over ipv4
    IPv4 tunnels work over ipv6
    take a look at freenet6 http://gogonet.gogo6.com/
    Plenty of infomration and a great forum / friendly user base.

    Link to this
  7. 7. xyleneuk 6:51 am 02/23/2010

    never heard of duel stack?
    IPV6 tunnels run over ipv4
    IPv4 tunnels work over ipv6
    take a look at freenet6 http://gogonet.gogo6.com/
    Plenty of infomration and a great forum / friendly user base.

    Link to this
  8. 8. brandontek 12:11 pm 02/23/2010

    Like others have mentioned, you can do dual stack. Sorry for the self promotion but I recently blogged about this topic called: Will IPv6 be the new Y2K?

    http://www.brandontek.com/?p=80

    Let me know what you think. IPv6 can be done properly if carefully planned ahead, not something you want to do last minute. There are people on IPv6 right now…

    Link to this
  9. 9. brainguy 6:50 pm 02/25/2010

    I had a critical comment here. WAS D-E-L-E-T-E-D by the staff.

    Way to go S.A.! Censorship us! After all, this is your website, and you can shape the outcome of the comments at will.

    Again, way to go!

    Link to this
  10. 10. theTribster 2:33 am 03/23/2010

    Great post, I’ve compiled a couple of articles on the Internet of Things <a href=http://tastethecloud.com/series_topics>HERE</a>. I’m amazed at the explosion in intelligent devices and the growth of the hacker communities, lots of innovation there.

    Link to this
  11. 11. theTribster 2:38 am 03/23/2010

    Sorry it didn’t liek the HTML, here’s the link:

    http://tastethecloud.com/series_topics

    Link to this
  12. 12. diiegonava 10:51 pm 10/3/2010

    Sons of bitches.

    Link to this

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