The Internet of Things - a South African IP stumbling block?
The 'Internet of Things' represents an ambitious ideal in which everyday objects we'd never imagined to be worth connecting are introduced to the global network. In such a world, turning on a stove, scheduling a television recording, or setting an alarm would be as simple as accessing a home management portal on a smartphone while driving home from work.
It may sound like a pipe dream, but the realisation of a completely automated lifestyle may be far closer than we think.
According to Cisco's Visual Networking Index, the number of devices connected to IP networks will be nearly three times as high as the global population in 2016. By the same date, non-PC Internet traffic is expected to rise from 22% to 31%, with smart televisions and tablet devices accounting for the majority of this growth.
Naturally, each of these devices will require its own IP address - a reality that's swiftly becoming a major stumbling block for many operators.
An IP mountain
Recently, Brainstorm published a concerning report on the diminishing range of Internet protocol version 4 (IPv4) routing addresses available to global service providers.
Developed in the 1980s, IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses to direct Internet traffic. This standard makes provision for 4 294 967 296 (2 raised to power 32) possible unique addresses. The majority of these have already been claimed.
Although a new standard offering greater capacity - IPv6 - is gradually being adopted, local service providers have been slow to respond.
This, says local telecommunications provider BWired's CTO Willie Olivier, has placed South African Internet users in a precarious position.
"We have a serious problem in South Africa. Most networks continue to operate using IPv4 addresses and are adopting IPv6 far too slowly.
"As I understand it, the last range of IPv4 addresses for the local market has now been issued. To compensate, many service providers are mapping current IPv4 addresses to IPv6 via network gateways. Although this is an acceptable short-term solution, it slows connection speeds and erodes the end-user experience."
We have a serious problem in South Africa. Most networks continue to operate using IPv4 addresses and are adopting IPv6 far too slowly.
According to Olivier, South African operators are not yet ready to truly embrace IPv6, despite claims to the contrary.
"Most operators have said they're prepared for IPv6, but I have yet to see a service provider implementing it successfully across a broad network. As IPv4 addresses begin to diminish, it's imperative we prepare accordingly."
Due to the public nature of the IPv6 standard, many operators have cited network security as a real concern - particularly within the mobile environment, says Olivier.
Security should also be the end-user's responsibility.
"Most service providers are concerned about how IPv6 will affect network security. Unlike IPv4, all addresses issued on the new standard are public. Many people view IPv4 and IPv6 as similar in nature, but they're considerably different."
The solution, says Olivier, is not to avoid IPv6 entirely, but to encourage end-user awareness of network security threats.
"Stifling IPv6 adoption is not the answer. Service providers need to ensure that users understand the dangers associated with risky behaviour. Security should also be the end-user's responsibility."
BWired is nearing the completion of its first high-speed fibre network. Snaking its way through the beating heart of Johannesburg's metropolitan cityscape, the system is expected to support the emergence of several innovative services upon its go-live date in July 2013.
Other networks of a similar nature currently being rolled out or extended by the likes of Neotel, Dark Fibre Africa or Broadband Infraco would further support such technologies.
This, says Olivier, could see services such as IPtv and mobile home automation emerge far more swiftly than analysts might have anticipated. A lack in IPv6 readiness, however, may be a deal breaker.
"I think we're heading for a very exciting time. We've all been talking about this for a while and I foresee converged technology usage in South Africa becoming a reality in the near future.
"The influx of devices is not going to stop. It's absolutely essential that service providers have their ducks in a row before sluggish IPv6 adoption becomes a serious issue," says Olivier.
With metropolitan fibre networks and exciting new technologies on the horizon, it's only a matter of time before the 'Internet of Things' becomes a local reality. Will IPv6 be the straw that breaks the camel's back? Time will surely tell.
First published in April 2013 edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.