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Report: Explosive Growth May Exhaust Web Space

FILE - Employees work at the headquarters of Bitdefender, a leading Romanian cybersecurity company, in Bucharest, March 5, 2015.

A new report by the cloud-services firm Akamai says the global World Wide Web is getting significantly faster, but also warns that the explosive growth in the number of connected devices may exhaust the limited remaining space currently available on the Internet.

The report, “State of the Internet,” is a quarterly snapshot of the Internet’s performance and spread around the world. It tracks access to the web, Internet and mobile data speeds, and the overall stability of the web.

“The changes this quarter were overwhelmingly positive,” said David Belson, senior director of industry and data intelligence at Akamai and editor of the report. “I always say that the year-to-year changes are more illustrative, but given that this report tracks the same trends we’ve been seeing for a while, I think that’s a very positive sign.”

The report concludes that Internet connectivity continues to grow in every part of the world, with total users approaching 3.2 billion. Presently there are approximately two connected devices for every person on the planet; the report predicts that number will grow to three devices per capita by 2019.

The United States still leads the world in the number of unique Internet addresses, followed by China and Brazil, two countries that are seeing rapid growth.

According to the report, average global connection speeds rose by 10 percent over last year, rising to approximately 5 megabits per second. However, less than 5 percent of the world’s population has access to Internet speeds of 25 megabits or higher.

“This continues to reinforce the trends we’ve been seeing,” Belson said. “There’s more and more Internet usage, and connectivity speeds are getting faster.”

South Korea topped the list of average connection speeds at 23.6 megabits with one in five residents having access to broadband speed — a new global high. Ireland, Hong Kong, Sweden and the Netherlands rounded out the top five nations.

Singapore charted the most dramatic increase in peak connection speeds, while connection speeds increased most dramatically in Kuwait and Mongolia, at 126 and 72 percent respectively.

The report also charted access speeds for mobile devices and found that mobile data traffic grew by 12 percent over the last quarter. Britain had the fastest average connection speed at 20.4 megabits — a 28 percent increase from the previous quarter — with Denmark coming in second place at 10 megabits.

Vietnam had the lowest average mobile connection speed at 1.3 megabits. Mobile voice traffic hasn’t shown any significant increase globally since 2008.

The report says the unbridled growth is contributing to a looming problem: The Internet is running out of the addresses needed to connect devices to the web.

Much of the web uses Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4, to govern data traffic. IPv4 has a total of 4.29 billion unique addresses for computers, tablets and other digital devices to connect and route traffic.

But with billions of addresses already used up, and the potential of the so-called “Internet of Things” to rapidly claim what addresses remain, IPv4 will run out of room in the near future, analysts say.

A new version of the web, known as IPv6, has been available for more than a decade and would vastly increase the number of potential addresses for devices connecting to the web. The problem, Belson said, is that without a definitive threat looming, service providers have been lax in updating their systems.

“The IPv4 exhaustion issue has been around for many years,” Belson told VOA. “Now it’s really becoming more and more imminent, to the point where regional Internet registries are going to turn the cup over, and one day soon, nothing’s going to drip out.”

The report doesn’t specifically track security issues, but Belson said as the Internet continues to grow in reach, so do the number of hackers launching cyber attacks.

“It’s not that the Internet itself is becoming less secure, it’s that attacks are becoming much more prevalent,” he said. “Hacking has become easier and cheaper, and the attackers are becoming smarter and more wily. What that means, frankly, is that the folks responsible for their network security really need to take all the necessary steps to push back against that.”

Belson said the hacking threats aren’t just an issue for large corporations or enterprises. Small businesses, shared sites and even blogs are increasingly coming under attack.

“We hear ‘Well, I haven’t been attacked yet so I don’t need to worry about that’ a lot,” he said. “That’s like saying nobody’s ever broken into your house, so you don’t need to put a lock on your door.”

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.