While there's no denying that the Internet has changed the world, it hasn't reached everyone yet. In fact, the International Telecommunications Union estimates that 61 percent of the world's 7.1 billion people are still not using it..
Developed economies are leading the way in terms of Internet penetration and usage, while regions such as Africa are rapidly investing in Internet infrastructure. Developing a robust Internet infrastructure impacts a range of areas – from business, education, medical support, through to more intangible things like cultural expression and keeping in touch with friends and families.
But it can be difficult to establish Internet infrastructure in some regions of the world. There are vast distances to cover with cables or even expensive satellite-enabled hardware. Cables need to be buried, otherwise they can be easily damaged, and this means that often a large investment is required.
Without local Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) and Domain Name Servers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot thrive, and end users will experience significant latency as traffic is routed out of the local network and through other countries or regions before data is returned, often with considerable added transit costs.
Tech giants intervene
It's not just local governments, IXPs and ISPs who are looking to solve the connectivity problem; some of the world's biggest tech giants have also turned their attention to the matter. Recently, it has been suggested that infrared signals projected from the sky by autonomous drones will be part of the next evolution of the Internet. Facebook plans to use a fleet of solar-powered drones to do the job while Google proposes using high altitude balloons.
These air-based solutions would effectively create gigantic WiFi zones in relatively remote regions, opening up Internet access to even more people. These ideas from Facebook and Google show incredible innovation and help to resolve a number of the issues mentioned above. The ambition to connect the whole globe to the Internet is admirable, but there are other challenges in addition to the delivery method.
At the RIPE NCC, we think there must be a collaborative effort from the entire community. Soaring advances in Internet infrastructure only address part of the problem. If all 7.1 billion people on earth were able to connect to the Internet overnight, without IPv6 the experience would be poor for a lot of them.
That's because every device that connects to the Internet needs an IP address and we've already reached IPv4 exhaustion in most parts of the world. There were just 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses in the first place, so you can see that even if everyone only used one IP address, we'd still be short a couple of billion. And this is overlooking the fact that we are typically using multiple devices, and our environment is increasingly becoming IP enabled. IPv6 is the new standard, which allows for 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses so there's no chance we'll run out any time soon.
Supporting developing nations with high-flying infrastructure is admirable, but ultimately it's only part of the solution. Asking countries and citizens to invest in Internet hardware that isn't IPv6-ready is a short-term solution that may end up costing more in the long term. Only by considering and deploying IPv6 in all hardware developments can we help to safeguard the future of the Internet and give everyone the access they deserve.
- Axel Pawlik is the Managing Director of the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC). He has worked in the Internet industry for over 28 years.