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Next-generation Network: Changing China, Changing Lives

Professor Wu Jianping, director of the Internet Center, China Education and Research Network (CERNET), says that the obvious reasons for the development of a next-generation network (NGN) are the limitations of the current one: space, speed and security.

Wu said that the next-generation network is faster, larger, safer, and more efficient and convenient. The transmission speed of the NGN will be 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the current one. Internet Protocol Version 4 will be phased out and replaced by IPv6.

"The development of the next-generation network provides us great opportunities," said Wu. The United States started its research on the first-generation Internet in 1969, but China did not set up its first national test network until 1994. The Internet itself has helped to shrink that gap. In 1996, the US government launched its plan for the next-generation network. Just two years later, Chinese researchers began working in this field. The transformation of the Internet system has provided us with common opportunities. Moving from IPv4 to IPv6 creates challenges concerning all the hardware and software for the next generation. The industry is facing a reshuffle, giving many enterprises new chances that might transform the current structure of the Internet economy.

Although the Internet economy is encountering huge challenges at present, nobody can deny the fact that Internet will be an essential factor in future society. It will play a significant role in the development of the economy, science and technology and education as well as national defense. Therefore, construction and research on the next-generation network is of great importance to China.

China now at int'l level in Internet development

In April 1998, the CERNET set up China's first IPv6 test network and obtained China's first batch of IPv6 addresses.

In November 1999, the National Natural Science Foundation of China formally authorized the IPv6 project plans. Tsinghua University and the Computer Network Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences jointly constructed the China High-speed Internet Research Test Network, China's first network to connect with the international NGN.

In 2002, 57 academicians petitioned the State Council for a high-speed academic trunk network of China's second-generation network. In August 2003, the State Council agreed to raise 1.4 billion yuan (US$169 million) to construct the demonstration project.

On March 19, 2004, China's first trunk network of the next-generation network, CERNET2, went online. More than 6,000 kilometers of optical fiber cable connect dozens of universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Wu Jianping noted that the United States controls almost all key first-generation Internet technologies, from basic hardware, such as routers and exchangers, to software and standards. "For the second generation, China should have a place. Otherwise, we will always be in a subordinate position."

Wu listed some important areas for research and applications: high-definition, highly interactive and point-to-point visual communications; intelligent traffic; environment and earthquake monitoring; and long-distance medical care and education. The use of a large proportion of domestically developed features in the next-generation net will make the CERNET2 test network a key component of infrastructure in promoting the development of next-generation network in China.

"Our next-generation research and applications are easily at the international level," said Wu Jianping.

Slicing the big Internet pie

The profitability of the next-generation net is always a matter of concern. Lei Zhenzhou, former chief engineer with the Ministry of Information Industry's Telecommunication Research Institute, thinks the hugely increased capacity and speed of the new network means that more value-added services are needed.

For manufacturers of network hardware, the market opportunities provided by IPv6 will no longer be limited to selling more routers or cards. In the future, ISPs and IT enterprises will not be their only customers. Many consumer-use items and facilities will be connected with the next-generation network, so that manufacturers of white goods such as refrigerators, microwave ovens and air conditioners will also become customers for network chips.

"Network service providers will play a leading role in the next-generation network," said Lei. Moving from IPv4 to IPv6 is not just a technology upgrade, but an entire transformation of their scope of business. Major domestic ISPs are watching the IPv6 tests closely and searching for new applications that will be made possible by its advent.

Investment in this area by domestic telecom operators has already climbed over 1 billion yuan (US$121 million). Some insiders report that China Unicom will provide support service for IPv6 in 15 cities this year. The advent of IPv6 will also put new competitive pressure on telecom operators as they jockey for position in the expanded market.

Lei said that while people may think it is too early to talk about the possibilities brought by IPv6, for service providers and other Internet-related -- or future Internet-related -- companies, it is essential to begin preparing now. The increased capacity and speed of the next generation will make possible visual and multimedia applications that will make today's short-message services and online games look crude.

2004 is a crucial year

The 2004 Global NGN Summit organized by the Ministry of Information Industry was held in Beijing from April 26 through 28. Under the theme of "joint efforts to build the future next-generation network," discussions were held on development trends, the evolution of operators from traditional to high-performance and development of new businesses and modes of operation.

"2004 is a key year for the development of the NGN," said Huang Chenhong, head of the Next-generation Network Department of Nortel Networks (China) Ltd.

This is already the year in which, under China's WTO agreements, the telecommunications sector opens wider than ever before. A looming next-generation network will make telecom operators reconsider their own development strategies.

Since the construction of the next-generation trunk network in 1998, technologies for commercial applications of the NGN are no longer a problem. Huang notes that in the past five years, Nortel Networks had concluded some 46 contracts worth US$2.3 billion in connection with next-generation applications.

Analysts believe that following the test application in 2003 and expansion in 2004, the next-generation network will be widely applied in business in 2005.

Unlimited addresses

The biggest single problem with the current-generation Internet is limited IP address resources. Theoretically, there are 4.3 billion IP addresses in use. North America accounts for three-fourths of them, or about 3 billion. But Asia, the most populous region, has fewer than 400 million. China has just a few more than 30 million. This shortage means that many countries can only use the Internet by sharing IP addresses or dial-up, a situation that closely restricts Internet application and development in these countries.

The greatest advantage of the next-generation network is the infinite number of IP addresses. Every single user could have 16 million IP addresses, should he or she feel so inclined. More practically, perhaps, is an IP address for every user's car, washing machine, telephone and refrigerator. Users will be able to log in any time and anywhere without taking the trouble of setting up an IP or dialing.

The next-generation network will evolve from tool to indispensable assistant. It will no doubt change lifestyles, but even more importantly it will mean a substantial improvement in life quality.

(China.org.cn, translated by Wang Qian, May 6, 2004)

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