Is the Internet facing a “perfect storm”?

The Internet has become a massive part of our everyday lives. If you walk down a British high street, you can’t fail to notice people staring into their phones rather than looking where they are going! I did see a comment on TV this week that you have a 1-in-10 chance of tripping and falling over when walking along looking at your phone and messaging…

There are massive pushes for faster access in countries which already have widespread Internet adoption, both over fixed infrastructure (such as FTTC and FTTH) and wireless (LTE, aka 4G), which at times isn’t without controversy. In the UK, the incumbent, BT, is commonly (and sometimes unfairly) criticised for trying to sweat more and more out of it’s copper last mile infrastructure (the wires that go into people’s homes), while not doing enough to “future-proof” and enable remote areas by investing in fibre. There’s also been problems over the UK regulator’s decision to allow one mobile phone network get a head-start on it’s competitors in offering LTE/4G service ahead of them, using existing allocated radio frequencies (a process known as “spectrum refarming”).

Why do people care? Because the Internet helps foster growth and can reduce the costs of doing business, and it’s why the developing countries are working desperately hard to drive internet adoption, along the way having to manage the threats of “interfering” actors who either don’t fully understand or fear change.

However, a bigger threat could be facing the Internet, and it’s coming from multiple angles, technical and non-technical. A perfect storm?

  • IPv4 Resource Exhaustion
    • The existing addressing (numbering) scheme used by the Internet is running out
    • A secondary market for “spare” IPv4 resources is developing, IPv4 addresses will have a monetary value, driven by lack of IPv6 deployment
  • Slow IPv6 Adoption
  • Increasing Regulatory attention
    • On a national level, such as the French Regulator, ARCEP, wishing to collect details on all interconnects in France or involving French entities
    • On a regional level, such as ETNO pushing for regulation of interconnect through use of QoS – nicely de-constructed by my learned colleague Geoff Huston – possibly an attempt to retroactively fix a broken business model?
    • On a Global level through the ITU, who, having disregarded the Internet as “something for academics” and not relevant to public communications back in 1988, now want to update the International Telecommunication Regulations to extend these to who “controls the Internet” and how.

All of these things threaten some of the basic foundations of the Internet we have today:

  • The Internet is “open” – anyone can connect, it’s agnostic to the data which is run over it, and this allows people to innovate
  • The Internet is “transparent” – managed using a bottom-up process of policy making and protocol development which is open to all
  • The Internet is “cheap” – relatively speaking, Internet service is inexpensive

These challenges facing the Internet combine to break all of the above.

Close the system off, drive costs up, and make development and co-ordination an invite-only closed shop in which it’s expensive to participate.

Time and effort, and investing a little money (in deploying IPv6, in some regulatory efforts, and in checking your business model is still valid), are the main things which will head off this approaching storm.

Adopting IPv6 should just be a (stay in) business decision. It’s something operational and technical that a business is in control of.

But, the regulatory aspect is tougher, unless you are big enough to be able to afford your own lobbyists. Fortunately, if you live in the UK, it’s not reached “write to your MP time”, not just yet. The UK’s position remains one of “light touch” regulation, largely letting the industry self-regulate itself through market forces, and this is being advocated to the ITU. There’s also some very bright, talented and respected people trying to get the message through that it’s economically advantageous not to make the Internet a closed top-down operated system.

Nevertheless, the challenges remain very much real. We live in interesting times.

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