Dubai meeting to decide future of the internet

A crucial decision on the future of the internet will be made at a meeting of industry professionals in Dubai this week. A body that oversees the regional distribution of internet protocol (IP) addresses – the unique numbers that identify every device connected to the internet – will make a decision on migrating to a new addressing system that can cope with the explosive growth of the global network. The current IP address format means that only 4.3 billion unique addresses can be generated, a supply widely predicted to be exhausted by late 2010. The new format, known as IP Version 6 (IPv6), allows for considerably more: 79 billion billion billion times as many as the current system. But migrating to this system requires a co-ordinated effort by internet providers, one that the organisers of this week’s meeting hope to reach consensus on. “We knew for more than 10 years that we would run out of addresses,” said Axel Pawlik, the managing director of the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (NCC). “But the reach of the internet has grown much faster than a lot of people expected, so now it is more important to find solutions.” The meeting comes at a time when engaging the internet community in the Middle East – where internet use is growing faster than anywhere else – is of increasing importance to the organisations that govern the internet. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the allocation of website domain names, will meet next month in Cairo. Earlier this year it committed to a series of reforms, including allowing website addresses to be written in Arabic script. RIPE, an independent non-profit organisation based in Amsterdam, manages the allocation of IP addresses in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. The transition to the new addressing standard will take many years, involving billions of dollars of hardware and software upgrades by internet providers around the world. In the meantime, said Mr Pawlik, the internet community will need to develop a system to manage the distribution of an increasingly scarce number of addresses. “We foresee that there may be something like a market developing,” he said. “A system to manage the transfer of IP addresses will be important.” While a market for addresses would make sense once they became a scarce resource, there will be a number of legal and technical hurdles to such a trade. Creating a framework for the transfer of IP addresses between different parties will be a key topic of -discussion at this week’s meeting. In an ideal world, Mr Pawlik said, internet providers would agree to migrate en masse to the new IPv6 system. But in practice, the process will be a complicated and messy mixture of technical and political bargaining and compromise. “If everybody suddenly agrees to pack up and move over to the new system, that would be the best outcome,” he said. “It is also the most unlikely.” Tom Gara