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When the Internet breaks, who ya gonna call?

The last time the Internet had a major upgrade was in 1986.

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When Pakistan tried to ban the video-sharing site YouTube in February 2008, the government mistakenly told computers around the world that Pakistan was now the best route to the site. As a result, every YouTube video started flowing through Pakistan’s relatively anemic data pipeline, causing a huge bottleneck and preventing most people from getting to the site at all.

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The last time the Internet had any kind of a major upgrade was in 1985 and 1986, when the government agency overseeing the ARPAnet started to transition it from a military project to a more general research network.

At that time, a switch was made from the existing networking address system, which could only accommodate a couple of hundred computers, to the Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) that we still use today for more than 4 billion possible addresses.

This move marks the last time that the Internet had a mandated, coordinated change.

Unlike the nation’s airwaves, which are controlled by the FCC, the Internet has no governing body with ultimate say on its operation. So there is no ability to require a change, such as we saw earlier this year with the switch from analog to digital television.

The closest thing that the Internet has to an owner is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an advisory organization that promotes new protocols and researches fixes to vulnerabilities in the Internet infrastructure.

But because the Internet is really composed of hardware and software owned and maintained by millions – if not billions – of companies, governments, and individuals, there is no way to just “flip a switch.”

One glaring example of this weakness is the rapidly diminishing availability of those 4 billion Internet addresses. The IPv4 system may have seemed sufficient in 1985, but with China, Brazil, and India quickly connecting more people to the Web, the supply is rapidly running out.

A solution has existed for close to a decade: IPv6, which uses address numbers that are four times longer and would probably never run out. In fact, under IPv6, there would be enough addresses for every person on the planet to have eight for each atom in their body.

Vinton Cerf believes that a move to IPv6 is critical. “[We need to implement] IPv6, so as to be ready for the run out of IPv4 sometime around 2011.”

But as Doyle points out, there is little financial incentive for the companies that provide Internet service to consumers and businesses to upgrade, because it doesn’t generate additional revenue.

He claims that basic work on improving fundamental network infrastructure has taken a back seat in our culture to the development of flashy new Internet applications, such as Twitter and Facebook.

This opinion seems to be proved true by the slow adoption of IPv6.

In spite of the fact that all major computer-operating systems and network hardware have supported IPv6 for years, it is almost impossible to get an IPv6 address from an Internet service provider.

In a written response, Jean McManus, executive director for Verizon Network & Technology states in regard to IPv6 that “it is an important development that we are actively working, but Verizon has nothing to announce at this time.”

A notable exception is Comcast, which is testing residential IPv6 service with plans to roll it out generally in 2010.

Doyle thinks that what is really needed is a from-the-ground-up redesign of the underlying Internet architecture.

“To the extent I’ve been working in this field for the last 10 years, I’ve been mostly working on band-aids. I’m really trying to get out of that business and try to help the people, the few people, who are really trying to think more fundamentally about what needs to be done.”

He speculates that such a new network could coexist with the current Internet. In fact, he says, what we know today could eventually become just a small piece of a new, more secure network.

But Doyle says that there’s a lot of basic research that needs to be done before that could happen.