Double trouble

Double trouble

Dwindling number of IP addresses and net neutrality issues need resolving

At the company's recent Partner Summit, Cisco's John Chambers painted a picture of collaboration driving a second wave of the Internet. But although increased uptake of video technology as part of broader unified communications has great potential, the Internet is facing a couple of serious challenges in the next few years that could greatly impact on its ability to define the way we work and play.

The first is technical. Experts gathered at FutureNet last week -- an annual conference that addresses communication services from the perspective of enterprises, ISPs and vendors -- and discussed the impending drought of IP addresses. IPv4, the first widely deployed version of Internet Protocol, can only generate 4.7 billion IP addresses, which some forecasters have predicted could run out in the next few years.

So what to do? Rapid deployment of IPv6 would create several billion additional IP addresses but there is widespread reluctance to do this because of the investment burden on users and the ISP community. Also, the translation mechanisms required to make the switch are still not widely deployed.

We could always stick with IPv4 and create a trading system for IP addresses that would see them sold according to market value, but this would be a short-sighted solution so migration to IPv6, albeit gradually, looks more likely.

However, this still fails to tackle the underlying problem because creating additional IP addresses could put strain on the routing tables that determine the optimal paths between networks. These tables are not scalable so they will be unable to adapt to exponential increases in the number of IP addresses. Moving to IPv6 will postpone the problem but it will still need to be tackled at some stage and it seems nobody has worked out how to do that yet.

The second threat, which looks likely to come to a head sooner and is in many ways more serious, is the current debate being played out in the US around net neutrality. The US Federal Communications Commission held its second public hearing of the year into net neutrality at Stanford University last week following revelations that Comcast had been blocking peer-to-peer file sharing by its customers.

Liberals argue that the Internet should be open and free because the level playing field this creates is its greatest feature. But bandwidth-hungry peer-to-peer traffic, especially video from popular sites such as YouTube and BitTorrent, are creating strain and network operators are looking to alleviate it.

I would ask what right a service provider has to make a judgement call on the importance of our traffic but blocking peer-to-peer content is the thin end of the wedge. Even more worrying is the possibility that network operators will tier traffic so that you pay to drive in the fast lane of the information superhighway. Enterprises will likely be willing to do so if it guarantees them speedy traffic but consumers and small businesses could be priced out of the equation and confined to the slow lane. That would be wrong and I hope it isn't a road we end up taking.

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