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The Internet gets a sixth sense

Kieren McCarthy

Not just phones and TVs, but kettles and fridges will be connected to the Net in 2006

London: No more spam. No more "phishing" bank scams. News, pictures and short clips sent seamlessly to your phone ... or your fridge. Video conferencing that works first time, no hassles. Free, stereo-quality phone calls anywhere in the world. No, it is not a utopian ideal, it is the Internet that some people will begin to experience in the next 12 months.

Unknown to virtually everyone except IT engineers, the Internet is being upgraded to a system called IPv6 (for Internet Protocol version 6). Just as you upgrade your mobile phone, computer or any modern appliance, the Internet is undergoing a vast, gradual upgrade that will transform how it works and the way we interact with it.

Big companies including Microsoft and BT have already made the move to Ipv6. Communication over the Internet works by breaking up information, an e-mail for example, into small chunks called packets. Using a combined method called TCP/IP (for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), they are sent by myriad routes from one computer in the world to another somewhere else.

Each packet carries an electronic label that explains what it is and where it wants to get to. Non-terminating computers that handle the packets try to send them on to the terminating machine. There, the information is reassembled using the rest of the header information. For years, TCP/IP has been stuck on version 4 which is easy to implement. But IPv4, as it is known, is becoming outdated. An updated version, IPv6, provides solutions to many of the problems. All IPv6 effectively does is change the format of the electronic label on each packet. The first is to allow the Net to potentially expand virtually to infinity. IPv4 offers a maximum of just over 4 billion such addresses. That could never cope with the ambitious plans to connect not just every phone, TV and computer in the world to the Net, but also things such as kettles and fridges. IPv6 solves this by providing not 4bn addresses but more than three hundred billion billion billion billion (actually, 3.4 x 10^38, or 2^128).

IPv6 will also make the entire Internet more secure by including a check on every single packet sent.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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