Brussels, 31 October 2006
Partners in 6DISS, an EU funded project, are helping developing countries to get ready for the next generation of the internet: IPv6.
IPv6 may mean little or nothing to the average internet user, but without it, many people worldwide would find themselves unable to get connected in the coming years. However, to understand IPv6 is to first know how the internet works.
The internet is a vast network of many different computers that are able to talk to each other even when they may be separated by large distances, may be very different computers built by different manufacturers, and may be running many different kinds of operating systems. Via the internet, computers exchange packets of information using addresses that have much in common with ordinary postal addresses. These addresses are called Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.
Every device that is connected to the internet - websites, computers and mobile phones - needs an IP address so that it can be located on the network. In the early days of the internet, developers had no idea how big it would become. They gave each address a 16-bit number, meaning that the total number of available addresses worked out at about four billion (2 to the power of 32). This version of IP address is known as IPv4.
'That might seem like a lot of addresses but some were reserved in advance and addresses were allocated according to geographical regions,' explains Martin Potts, one of the partners in 6DISS. Indeed, the global distribution of available IP addresses has been extremely unbalanced, with 74% going to North American organisations, with two universities (Stanford and MIT) each having more than China.
'So in reality there were only probably around two million addresses left which still sounds like a lot but with the advent of mobile technology, more and more addresses are needed so that new devices like mobile phones and gadgets can connect to the internet,' Mr Potts told CORDIS News.
Another reason behind the dwindling number of addresses is the change-over to the 'always on' internet connection. Until now, when we dialled our internet provider they assigned a temporary IP address, which is taken away upon log off and given to someone else. But with the arrival of wireless computing, each user needs a static or permanent IP address.
Recognising the need to find a solution to the shortage of addresses, programmers came up with the next generation protocol: IP6v. This is a 128 bit address and provides an unlimited number of addresses (estimated 340 undecillion addresses). It also supports quality of service (QoS) parameters for realtime audio and video.
In Europe and elsewhere, online services and networks are gradually migrating to IPv6, albeit slowly. 'For a certain length of time, ISP providers have to support both protocols. But there is a reluctance to change over since users are finding tricks around the shortage of addresses in IPv4,' said Mr Potts.
However, while developed countries - where IPv4 addresses are still available - may be able to take their time to move to the new generation of internet, Mr Potts says that the move is much more urgent for developing and emerging economies which are running out of their smaller supply of addresses. 'China and India are only beginning to look into migrating to IPv6 - up until now they haven't had the need for IPv6. But with more people and devices connecting to the internet in these countries, that need has become increasingly urgent,' he noted.
The rapid growth of the mobile sector in developing countries is also necessitating a speedy deployment of IPv6. 'In Africa the internet is not widespread but the mobile sector is really catching on,' says Mr Potts. 'In Kenya alone, it is estimated that there as many as 10 times more mobile phones than fixed telephone lines.
'In some ways the deployment of the IPv6 infrastructure should be much easier to put in place in developing countries: since the internet is less widespread, there are no IPv4 legacy issues.'
What is missing in these countries though is deployment capacity. This is where the 6DISSS project comes in. It offers practical information to those people who are directly responsible for the installation, operation and maintenance of the National Research and Education Networks in countries of Asia-Pacific, the Caribbean, Central Asia, the Mediterranean, South & Central America, South-East Europe, Southern Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The project also aims to inform strategists/decision makers in these countries of the benefits of deploying IPv6.
The project partners have so far organised 10 workshops in association with the National Research and Education Networks in the selected regions. 'We come along to some of their events and do some hands-on training, showing how to set up laptops to be IP6 enabled,' explains Mr Potts. The workshops make use of the experience gained from other EU funded projects such as 6NET, which introduced and tested new IPv6 services and applications on an IPv6 infrastructure in Europe.
In addition to the workshops, the project partners have also developed training material to equip the trainers who will continue to help ready these countries for deployment. 'This material will be added to the training we do,' says Mr Potts.
The project work programme is two-thirds completed, but during that time the partners have gained more commitments, explained Mr Potts. Having conducted workshops in one country, word would spread to representatives from neighbouring countries who would then request that the project partners to conduct a workshop there.
According to Mr Potts, the benefits of the 6DISS information exchange goes well beyond helping developing countries prepare for IPv6. 'One of the overall objectives of the project is to get partners from the developing countries more involved in new IST [Information Society Technologies],' he says 'In some part thanks to the project, we are already seeing that partners in, say, Africa are more interested about physically being connected with Europe.'