Canada is making moves toward the next generation of the internet, as real estate on the World Wide Web runs out, but some experts warn the country is falling behind.
The Canadian government has recently outlined its plan to upgrade all of its websites, and more Canadian portals have moved to the new system, called Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6).
These moves are part of a push to move away from the current protocol, Version 4, which is running out of IP addresses — the unique number that every device that connects to the internet must have.
Jacques Latour, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority's director of information technology, says Canada has made progress, but it is moving "way too slow."
'There's a big train, with a little light, and it's coming sooner than you think.' —Jacques Latour, of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority
He cautions that within a few years, some Canadian users still on outdated infrastructure may find they can't connect to new websites or to users who have switched to the new system, which is not fully compatible with the old one.
"There's going to be more than three billion internet users on the planet that are going to join the internet," Mr. Latour told CBC News.
"There's not going to be enough [on the old version] to support that … there's a big train, with a little light, and it's coming sooner than you think."
Warnings of 'IP exhaustion'
The challenge of this transition to a new internet structure was one of many issues facing the World Wide Web that were discussed last week at a Toronto meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the key oversight agency for internet addresses.
Experts have been warning for years that the internet has been heading for "IP exhaustion," meaning the internet is running out of IP addresses.
When the internet was conceived in the 1980s, it was set up under Internet Protocol Version 4, which could accommodate roughly 4.3 billion IP addresses.
At the time, that seemed like plenty. But in February 2011, the last blocks of available IP addresses globally were handed out to the internet registrar for the Asia-Pacific region.
Canada still has access to a block of available IP addresses from the internet registry for North America, which called is the American Registry for Internet Numbers, or ARIN. It currently has about 47 million still available, said Paul Andersen, one of the members of the board of trustees of ARIN.
The registry does not predict how long that will last, but "it's definitely not a lot of address space," said Andersen.
IP addresses could run out in 12-18 months
IPv6 resolves this problem by expanding internet real estate from roughly 4 billion to 340 undecillion IP addresses. That's 340 with 36 zeroes after it.
The issue, however, is getting everyone to switch.
Ed Juskevicius, Industry Canada's manager for infrastructure security, estimates ARIN's block of addresses will last anywhere between a year or 18 months before running out.
'There's very little content in the world's websites that anyone might want to reach today that can't be reached by IPv4. That will change.' — Ed Juskevicius of Industry Canada
Still, he doesn't think it's time to sound the alarm bells for a few years.
"There's very little content in the world's websites that anyone might want to reach today that can't be reached by IPv4. That will change. But today it's not a big problem. I don't think it will be a problem for a little while yet."
The average internet user has no idea what IPv6 is, or even how an IP address works, for that matter. But there has been a push in recent years to educate them.
Government websites in planning phase
On World IPv6 Day, June 8, 2011, some of the world's internet giants — including Google, Facebook and Yahoo — enabled their support for IPv6, in the first large scale "test" of the next-generation addressing system. And a year later, these same large companies permanently enabled IPv6.
It helped. After the launch, the number of .ca websites reachable on the new protocol spiked from about 1,000 to 12,000 today, said Latour. It's a big step, but the momentum has tapered off, he said.
Also in June, the Canadian government laid out its plan on how it plans to switch over its websites to the new protocol.
Federal organizations are in the first phase of planning, and have until the end of september next year to get ready, said Juskevicius.
Then, by March of 2015, all citizen and public facing websites should be IPV6 accessible, he added.
"The government is moving along as best as it can," he said.
Canada can't legislate the country's internet service providers and the rest of the industry to make the switch, he said, but they should get moving faster.
"Time is certainly now to get started," said Juskevicius. "Because … it's not as simple as flipping on a switch and suddenly we have it. There's some new things you have to buy, and new ways to run your network."
Most consumers unaware
Still, about 58 per cent of the big service providers or content creators who regularly come to ARIN for IP addresses have not asked for their block of next-generation addresses yet, said Andersen.
"That's a bit of a concern," he said.
But the average customer doesn't ask for anything beyond faster speeds, or wifi, said Victor Kuarsing, the architect of IP Networks for Rogers Communications.
"The majority of customers don't specifically ask for V6 today," he said during a panel last week. "We would like that to change."
And consumers don't realize that when they are buying computer equipment, such as routers, they may be buying something that will not work with newer versions of the internet, said Owen DeLong, IPv6 evangelist with Hurricane Electric internet services in the U.S.
"Consumers need to be made aware of this fact … they could be buying equipment that may get obsoleted quite quickly," said Owen Delong, IPv6 evangelist.
Canada is too late to be the leader in IPv6 adoption, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, said Juskevicius.
"We're too late to be the leader in IPV6 adoption. But being a leader can be painful, time consuming, you're going where nobody has gone before," he said.
"You're learning things the hard way. Being a fast follower is a very valid approach to deploying new technology, and I think we're in a not-bad position to do that."