Solutions to shrinking Internet space debatable

There will be a day when people will refer to the current era as the golden age of the World Wide Web. Subsequently, the future appears to be downhill from here.

There is a rumor that the Internet is running out of room. Most people understand the basic principle that the Internet is a limitless collection of servers exchanging data through an infrastructure. To make more room, one must add more servers.

Servers are computers that run data-exchange programs, sort of like postal trucks. The programs that these computers run can be considered the truck drivers, and the requests and responses are the packages being exchanged. Finally, think of a Web address as the space taken up on the highway. Any vehicle can occupy this space, from a corporate server to a Blackberry.

The problem with this grossly oversimplified viewpoint is that it suggests adding more trucks to the same highway – a highway that cannot accommodate them. This highway, known as Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), was once referred to as the information superhighway. However, the explosion of video data-exchange has increased traffic at a rate that experts forecast will cause a cyber standstill within a few years.

Ultimately, it is the infrastructure of the Internet that must be upgraded, but solutions are proving expensive and controversial.

IPv4 was designed to accommodate 4.3 billion addresses. A third of these addresses are active and more than another third are under ownership, Forbes magazine reported. But these figures will change drastically as more smart devices are designed to log on. It is estimated that within four years, there could be as many as 17 billion net-ready devices – four times the number of IP addresses available.

Surprisingly enough, all of the headlining propositions designed to correct the Internet’s shortcomings require the same stuff to enact: exorbitant amounts of money.

The plan generating the most controversy is the full-time implementation of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), a complete re-mapping of the transfer process that would add more on-ramps to the highway, according to Forbes. The estimated cost to implement IPv6 in the United States alone is around $200 billion, Australian newspaper The Age reported.

Downsides to the plan include the amount of retraining required to successfully apply IPv6 and the fact that corporations are currently unprepared for such a switch.

There is also debate over how much control the communications industry should be allowed to have over human life. IPv6 introduces virtually limitless potential in that respect. Imagine a biometrically enhanced soldier with a heart rate monitor and remote-controlled weapons capable of being armed and disabled from thousands of miles away. Imagine terrorists operating only behind computer screens. The magnitude of this jump should not be undervalued or easily accepted.

There is a less-aggressive alternative, though: doing nothing. Internode CEO Simon Hackett has reviewed the issue and said IPv4 is capable of handling the increased load. He claims every crisis spurred by demand jump has been accounted for successfully with the current Internet protocol system. He also said the load placed on routers would double with a system upgrade, causing the routers to “literally melt.”

Internet service providers are not shy about their reservations for IPv6. Companies cannot boost rates as a result of the improvements. There is no reason for them to opt for an engine overhaul that may only be temporarily adequate, especially if they cannot charge more for the ride.

But without a willingness to sacrifice for the future of the Internet, the world’s integrative society is bound to face a major setback. Believers in conservative business theory tend to simplify concepts down to one-dimensional cost-benefit analyses, and it appears that expansion has few short-term financial benefits.

IPv6 is not without uncertainty. Then again, few innovations are. This country was able to squeeze 100 years between the release of the first car and the second iPhone, and all of it was touch-and-go. The best option for the Internet is for service providers to step up and set examples of innovation. Professional writer Lamont Wood of LiveScience reports that China and other developing countries have already embraced this opportunity.

As Bruce Mehlman, co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, said: “It takes a digital village. Certainly, infrastructure providers have plenty to do. You’ve seen billions in investment, and you’re seeing ongoing billions more.”

Mohammed Ibrahim is a senior majoring in biology.