Technology

All Wired Up in the Shenandoah Valley


How one small town is taking the lead on upgrading to IPv6, and why you should know what that is

A massive upgrade to the Internet is underway around the world. Ask most folks about it, and you'll probably get a blank stare. But not in Harrisonburg, Va.

Residents of the semi-rural Shenandoah Valley college town are well aware that the world is running short on Internet addresses. They can tell you engineers are racing to fix the problem by revamping the standards that govern how computers communicate with each other. They know the new iteration of the Net is called Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), and if all goes according to plan, they'll be among the first in the nation to be ready for and benefit from its adoption.

They know all this because officials of this city of 40,000 are putting in place the modems, towers, and other gear needed to ensure that Harrisonburg's telecommunications network is IPv6-enabled.

Luring Jobs and Holding Talent

Once made over, the Internet will be capable of handling an almost inexhaustible number of IP addresses—enough for every cell phone, PDA, and any other computing device in use. In Harrisonburg, as with any city, that means safer, more seamless network connections from anywhere, making it easier to carry out e-commerce and transfer not only documents and e-mails but also video and other content. Officials are outfitting each of the city's 52 traffic lights with gear that gives emergency responders greater control over light changes while transporting an injured patient or pursuing a vehicle.

Another big reason for the IPv6 push: luring businesses and creating jobs. "What led us to IPv6 was our search for a series of tool kits or mechanisms that would make it attractive for companies to want to look at Harrisonburg," says Jim Barnes, the city's assistant director of economic development. The point is putting "together the right kind of infrastructure so that once they are there, it allows them to be successful, grow, and do their business."

A partner in the project is James Madison University, one of eight colleges within a 30-mile radius of Harrisonburg that together produce some 4,000 graduates a year, as well as a ready pool of interns. Barnes wants to make sure some of those alumni have reasons to stick around when they finish their degrees.

Centrally Located

Harrisonburg is in some ways an ideal proving ground for IPv6. Located two hours from both Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., Harrisonburg is at the crossroads of interstates and railroads that were lined with a surfeit of fiber-optic cables in the 1990s.

The city hopes unused fiber will be put to good use with the advent of IPv6, especially for companies eager to win contracts to help the U.S. government with the transition. Uncle Sam has ordered all 1,500 agencies of the federal government to transition their systems to comply with IPv6 by mid-2008.

Time is of the essence. More than a decade ago, the Internet Engineering Task Force became aware that the Internet would run short on available IP addresses, those long strings of numbers that distinguish one network-linked computer from the next. The current standard, IPv4, can handle 4.3 billion addresses. In 1994, the IETF calculated that all of them would be used up by 2008, give or take a few years. The next generation of the Internet will be able to handle 3.4 x 1038 addresses.

In the Vanguard of Innovation

For Harrisonburg, it hasn't always been easy to blaze the IPv6 trail. "The biggest challenge is not having any other example to learn from," says Mark Bayliss, chief executive of Visual Link, the Internet service provider that won the franchise to develop the city's IPv6 network. "When we do run into any type of problem, in most cases we are the first to find it."

Case in point: building a network that could handle both the existing and coming IP standards. The company had to create the necessary software from scratch. "We still have to support 20th century and early 21st century equipment and software in a mid-21st century network," Bayliss says. Nippon Telegraph & Telephone (NTT) of Japan is also providing equipment and support for the Harrisonburg project.

Tackling the occasional technical glitch is a price Harrisonburg is willing to pay. Adds Bayliss, "What you're seeing in Harrisonburg is what the rest of the world will look like in three to five years."

Click here to see a slide show of technology for the IPv6 era.

Hoffman writes for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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