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Connecting Soldiers--and Their Toothbrushes?

Kim Hart

The Internet is running out of space, and it's got Northern Virginia technology companies--especially those that work with the government-- abuzz.

They're trying to fix a big problem. Namely, all the existing net addresses (called IP addresses) will be used up within the next four years. The upgrade basically almost infinitely expands the number of addresses---and the upgrade is called Internet Protocol version 6 (or IPv6). This system would allow virtually everything to have it's own IP address, which in turn would make connections faster and more secure.

It seems almost far-fetched, and anyway, what does this mean? Some of them talked it up yesterday at the U.S. IPv6 Summit in Reston.

The movement has been largely spearheaded by the federal government, which has mandated that all agencies be compatible with this new address system within the next 14 months. That's caused a rush of companies--from small start-ups, like Command Information in Herndon that got $15 million from Carlyle last year, to big names like Microsoft, Verizon and Cisco--to offer a helping hand in the upgrade (and to grab a piece of the billions of dollars earmarked for the projects).

One of the federal government's biggest interests in the switch is to better equip the military. With the "new Internet," each soldier would essentially be his or her own network, which could be monitored at all times. Everything equipped with a sensor and carried by a solder--his gun, water bottle, boots--could be assigned unique addresses that can be linked together online. Someone sitting halfway around the world could monitor what that soldier sees through the scope of his rifle and watch his heart rate.

But it also has implications for consumer electronics and media, although Americans haven't caught on as quickly as other countries. In Asia, for instance, teenagers use IPv6 networks to stream videos and songs between cell phones. Television shows are transmitted online more quickly and cheaply. Parents monitor their babysitters with hidden cameras that stream video directly to their laptops. The networks using this new system are faster because it cuts a more direct path through the Internet.

The government is on track to meet the deadline. And once the government makes the switch, companies are betting IPv6 will take over on the consumer side as well---otherwise the country risks falling behind China and Japan. "We don't have the same lead we had before," when it comes to Internet technology, said Mark Bayliss of Visual Link in Winchester. His company helped wire IPv6 networks through Harrisonburg, Va., and James Madison University's campus.

Hexago, a Canadian company that opened an Arlington office to work with the government, created a portal to jumpstart the adoption of the new network by consumers and businesses. lets you hook up to IPv6, even if you're still using the old-school net.

If the IPv6 evangelists are to be believed---then theoretically everything in the world can be networked. Your bed, your clothes, your toothbrush and your car will not only be able to talk to each other, but they can also exchange information with your friends' razor, refrigerator and couch.

It's hard for me to imagine caring that much about the contents of my best friend's fridge. At any rate, it looks like I'll have at the very least, another year to warm up to the idea: IPv6 experts at the conference estimated it would take a minimum of a year for this technology to go mainstream in the United States.

By Kim Hart  |  March 29, 2007; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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Sounds an awful lot like "Big Brother."

Posted by: Rosie Win | March 29, 2007 11:34 PM

Typical Geek column. The writer expects that readers show what this new protocol is all about, how it differs from the existing numbering system (adding numbers, different order-I have no idea and did not find it here). The writer goes for the flash quote (assigning IP addresses to a soldier's boots) so the column might be picked up on Fox or MSNBC.

Next time, explain, explain explain.

Posted by: Kristin Hayward | March 30, 2007 9:23 AM

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