A flurry of activity is brewing behind the scenes of the Internet that could affect how your smartphone and other Internet-enabled devices operate.
All of those devices have an Internet Protocol, known has an IP number, and the global Internet is running out of those numbers due to the sheer volume of devices gobbling up those numbers at lightening speed, experts said.
That's why numerous wireless voice and Internet providers, including Comcast and AT&T, and website operators, such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo, among others have pledged their cooperation to use the next-generation of IP numbers so you can keep using your devices seamlessly, they said.
They cooperated on the World IPv6 Launch this week, perhaps the most significant event in Internet history, said Greg Brewster, director of the Center for Advanced Network Studies at DePaul University.
"The participants in World IPv6 Launch are heroes," Brewster said. "They are spending time and money to provide web access for those who would not otherwise have access."
The numbers crisis started in recent years, not unlike when the local phone companies ran out of phone numbers and needed to add more area codes. The current usage of IPv4 has about 4 billion IP addresses.
"The explosion in the number of people, devices, and web services on the Internet means that IPv4 is running out of space. IPv6, the next-generation Internet protocol ... will connect the billions of people not connected today and will help ensure the Internet can continue its current growth rate indefinitely," the Internet Society said in a statement.
To ensure the future of the Internet worldwide, all the participants are promoting the use of IPv6.
"By making IPv6 the 'new normal,' these companies are enabling millions of end users to enjoy its benefits without having to do anything themselves," the society said.
Brewster said the old IPv4 was set up 30 years ago to run the Internet. Now, new Internet customers in Asia, which has run out of IPv4, are receiving only new IPv6 addresses.
"Similarly, they will start exclusively issuing IPv6 addresses to new customers in Europe within a few months and in North America some time in 2013," Brewster said. "A key problem for these new customers is that they can't directly connect to any website that has not done IPv6 upgrades without going through a translation service."
This sets up a 2-tier Internet, where new Internet users are severely disadvantaged by the fact that they can't directly connect to the old IPv4 websites that haven't been upgraded yet, Brewster said.
"These new customers will find it much harder to get things done on the Internet until all the websites are upgraded to IPv6, a process that could take many years," Brewster said. "Upgrading websites and services to IPv6 costs time and money. In these hard economic times, many businesses are putting off the upgrade for budget reasons."
Businesses also have been slow to upgrade due to the big "IPv6 brokenness" scare that came in late 2010, when turning on IPv6 on a website actually caused some old IPv4 customers to lose access, Brewster said.
"This caused a lot of businesses to drop their upgrade plans for a while," Brewster said. "Who wants to ruin services for your old customers when you upgrade to accommodate new customers? It turns out that most of the IPv6 problems were caused by problems with Apple's OSX operating system, which Apple fixed by summer 2011. But customers running older versions of OSX can still have problems."
AT&T, which has is Midwest headquarters in Hoffman Estates, is one of the major companies backing the next-generation of IP numbers, especially since it has roughly 1 million broadband subscribers that could be impacted and other business and consumer customers.
"With ubiquitous IP connectivity becoming a reality, IPv6 is critical to ensuring applications and services can reach users anywhere they live and work," spokesman Jim Kimberly said. "AT&T thanks the ISOC, the content providers, fellow ISPs/Carriers, and CPE manufacturers in rallying around the common case of accelerating the transition to IPv6."
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