Monday, February 28, 2011

Reaching the Limits of the Web: The Travel Impacts

The Internet protocol version 4 (IPv4) is the enduring system of addresses used to identify and connect devices within the Internet. However, there is concern by many leading experts that the number of IP addresses supported by the IPv4 system is becoming exhausted. When the Internet was conceived it was assumed that 4.3 billion IP addresses would be a sufficient number to meet the needs of the Internet. But given the continued proliferation of devices connected to the Internet, the pool of IPv4 addresses could reach its limit by November 2011 (BBC, 13/01/11).

An alternative Internet protocol has been developed, the Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6). This protocol has the capacity for 340 undecillion (340 followed by 36 zeros) IP addresses (Star Telegram, 4/02/11). Having a vast number of IP addresses at our disposal will mean many more everyday devices, at home and at work, can have their own unique IP address resulting in a much more secure, robust and effective connection and communication within an ever diffuse web (see Such developments could have a massive impact on social and business practices that could change our current travel patterns significantly.

However, before we begin to speculate on how enhanced communication between devices can shape practices and travel, there are number of pressing technical challenges to implementing IPv6 on a global scale that could have more impending impacts on travel demand. Importantly, many devices, such as older modems and network cards, were not designed to read IPv6. There is a danger that large parts of the Internet will become incompatible with each other and therefore cause widespread communications disruptions. This challenge could be overcome by a global scale switch or re-configuration of all devices and websites from IPv4 to IPv6, although the practical complications of implementing a switch on this scale make it an unlikely option. It is much more likely that the switch will be chaotic and piecemeal (BBC, 11/11/10).

Global scale Internet disruptions could have a large, if short term, impact on travel demand. The Internet, after all, is fast becoming an essential part of the social and business practices which underpin travel demand. For example, how might important documents be sent if there is a disruption to email services? It is probable that important documents would be sent physically and thus increase demand for postal services in the short term, a service that relies on the movement of bodies and objects through physical space. How might business to business online communications systems cope with Internet disruption? If disruptions persisted, a real possibility according to Internet pioneer Vint Serf (BBC, 11/11/10), companies may change their procurement strategies, vertically integrating supply chains to become more resilient. Such developments could substantially alter the travel landscape within and between countries.

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