To boldly go where no Internet has gone before

October 22, 2007

by Mark Ollig

Vinton Cerf, who is regarded by most of us to be the founding father of the Internet, wants to take the Internet off the planet.

This proposed “interplanetary” Internet would allow people the ability “to access information and to control experiments taking place far away from Earth,” Cerf said at the 2007 World Knowledge Forum, which recently took place in Seoul, South Korea.

I guess this planet just isn’t big enough for the Internet anymore.

As I read through this report, Cerf acknowledged that expanding out into the solar system would require new Internet Protocol (IP) standards. The delay in the transmission of messaging packets would need to be looked at, but Cerf said he and other experts were working on the new standards that would be designed to guide “. . . space-era Internet communications.”

By 2010, the protocols for space-communication Internet protocol transmissions will be completed. Cerf and a team of engineers at the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will complete a key part of this project by then, according to Cerf.

These new standards were needed because of “ . . . the huge distances and time delays involved in communication across space,” Cerf said at a separate news conference.

I’ll agree with that, it is a long way to Mars.

I imagine in the next 10 years – if this Internet interplanetary backbone becomes a reality, from our home computer, we will surf over to the “Planet Mars” web site on the Internet and be able to control one of the many web cams that will be located on different regions of the planet. It would be fascinating focusing in on certain rocks, panning the Martian landscape, or zooming in and out at the day and night skies of Mars.

Not only will there be Martian web cams, but I envision hundreds (or even thousands) of maneuverable “mini-rovers” that will be on the surface, each with its own IP address and each one manipulated via remote control from the Internet.

I remember buying radio remote-controlled cars for my kids; in the future, my grandson will be able to remotely control a car from Mars.

The explosive growth of the Internet during the last 10 years has amazed Cerf. He said that this explosive growth will just continue.

Cerf mentioned how during the last 10 years the number of Internet users has grown 20 times, to about 1.2 billion people who will be using the Internet this year.

In 1997, the number of computer servers on the Internet was 22.5 million. This year, Cerf said it will reach 489 million.

One of the outstanding changes Cerf talked about was the Internet’s huge growth in Asia, which now boasts 436 million users, well above the figures of 321 million in Europe and 233 million in North America. “That there are so many users in Asia suggests the con10t of the Internet will eventually contain far more information in languages other than English than it does today,” he added.

Today, we are facing a shortage of Internet addresses. The Internet currently allows only 4.3 billion unique addresses – plenty back in the 1970s, when Cerf and Robert Kahn (who also deserves credit for the Internet as we know it) built the IPv4 addressing system.

Cerf realizes that 4.3 billion unique Internet IP addresses are not enough.

Cerf also chairs the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN manages domain names and addresses.Cerf said ICANN is preparing to launch a new IP format accommodating 340 trillion-trillion-trillion addresses. This will be the new IPv6 which I wrote a column about Jan. 7 of this year.

For those of you that like large numbers, IPv6 will increase the number of decimal values in each IP address from four to 16. This increases address length from 32 to 128 bits, resulting in a near infinite number of combinations – enough unique addresses for every grain of sand on the planet or for every person alive to have about 50 octillion unique IP addresses. One octillion is 10 to the 27th power, or a “1” with 27 “0s” following it. This is also equal to 1,000 quadrillion.

Out of this, Cerf expects “billions of Internet-enabled devices” to appear, with IP addresses to cover all of them. There will be an IP address for every electronic device you can think of.

Aug. 3, 1998, your humble columnist wrote an article entitled “Interplanetary Internet?” In it, reference was made of Cerf speaking before the 1998 meeting of the Internet Society in Geneva Switzerland.

In that speech, he made his dramatic announcement: “The time is now to think beyond the Earth.” There were audible gasps among the 1,700 in at10dance. Today, that time grows closer to realty.