Fortune Magazine
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Experts say U.S. must act on Internet

The most comprehensive survey ever about U.S. steps to the next-generation Internet finds worry, and an eagerness to move forward, says Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In the largest such survey ever conducted, 86 percent of a group of more than 1,000 experts on the next-generation Internet say they worry that the head start of other nations will hurt the United States.

They fear that China, India, and many European and Asian countries are moving faster to implement the addressing scheme known as Internet Protocol version 6, or IPv6. The new protocol will enable much longer numerical web addresses, the underlying data which tells URLs like where to go.

IPv6, as I wrote in May, is more than just a way to create more Web sites. It will enable much more secure network transactions, as well as dramatically better mobile use of the net.

Today there is room for about 4.3 billion Web addresses. About 1.2 billion of them are controlled by users in the United States. In the new scheme, Web addresses will be made up of 128 bits of information, unlike the 32 bits used today, and a vastly greater number of addresses will be available.

As all - and I mean all - communications begin to take advantage of Internet technology, these improvements will have a fundamental impact on our ability to get things done in society. Every cellphone could have a unique Web address, for instance.

More importantly, v6, as it's known among the experts, will allow us to do things we simply haven't imagined before. Because it can assign a unique Internet address to anything electronic, it can tie in sensors in our homes, vehicles and even under our skin.

Stability of the Internet at risk?

The survey was conducted by network-equipment maker Juniper Networks in October. Juniper surveyed over 1,000 technologists and experts in federal, state and local government as well as at companies building network products and services. The survey was made available Friday exclusively to Fortune. It has a margin of error of around 5 percent.

Of those surveyed, 70 percent said that they are worried that the slow pace of the U.S. rollout so far would affect this country's technological leadership. As for the central issue of national security, 62 percent thought the head start of other countries would hurt the United States. And 58 percent worried that the slow start in the United States puts the stability of the Internet here at risk.

The study did not contain just bad news. It demonstrated that those surveyed are willing to spend big to achieve the switchover, increasing the likelihood that it will happen relatively soon. Respondents in federal, state and local government said that by 2008, 44 percent of their IT spending would be for products that were ready for IPv6. Juniper (Charts) calculates that that should translate into about $62 billion worth of spending that year.

That's music to a network-equipment company's ears. Juniper's products are already v6-ready. But of course so are most of Cisco's (Charts), Microsoft's (Charts) and those of other big tech companies.

The willingness to spend real money is important, because government is likely to lead this transition. Last year, the Federal Office of Management and Budget issued an order requiring all Internet core infrastructure for government agencies, both military and civilian, to be IPv6 compliant by 2008. The survey shows state and local governments are ready to move as well.

Another critical finding, though, is that 75 percent of respondents said that they would like to see a central Federal IPv6 transition office. So far, while the Department of Defense already has such an office, the rest of government appears to be crying out for leadership.

Says Dr. Chuck Lynch, who set up the DoD office: "Something like IPv6 is so technical and has such a broad scope it's very difficult for the agencies to get their arms around it and decide what to do." Lynch now co-heads a tech transition consulting firm called SynExi which worked with Juniper to develop and analyze the survey.

With other countries pushing rapidly forward, this should be a top U.S. competitive priority. China, for example, is well on the way toward its goal of making its networks IPv6 by the 2008 Olympics.

Most of us shouldn't have to think about the actual process of implementing IPv6. When it finally happens we will just know that the Net can do more things.

But it is our responsibility to convey to lawmakers that this change really matters, and is urgent. The people who need this technology have, in this survey, spoken clearly.


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