For years, leading figures within the internet and telecommunications spheres have voiced their impatience with the slow adoption of IPv6, the next generation of internet protocol addresses. Just in the past few weeks, the topic was raised at both the APRICOT conference and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where ‘Father of the Internet’ Vinton Cerf highlighted the steady exhaustion of available IPv4 addresses and the transformative capabilities of IPv6.
Despite having been the “next big thing” for over 20 years now, however, there has been a noteworthy lack of real-world adoption of IPv6 addresses. In fact, it’s increasingly clear that IPv4 will continue to be an important part of the Internet infrastructure for years to come as the adoption of IPv6 lags. As a result, there is an urgent need for regulators to recognise the unfairness of the market currently surrounding IPv4 and take steps to equalize it, as well as provide the support and impetus needed to accelerate the IPv6 transition.
IPv6 Is Infrastructure Of The Future
The existing IPv4 system is predicated upon a 32-bit addressing scheme, which allows for the handling of nearly 4.3 billion IP addresses. At the time of its inception, that figure was regarded as so large as to be almost infinite, but the ballooning global population, increasingly interconnected nature of the planet, proliferation of mobile devices and advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has meant the supply is now insufficient to meet current demand.
Fortunately, the tech community has long been wise to the limitations of IPv4 and as far back as 1998, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) created IPv6. By switching to a 128-bit addressing system, the new technology is capable of supporting 340 undecillion (or 340 trillion trillion trillion) IP addresses, which should satisfy global demand for the foreseeable future. As well as its increased capacity, IPv6 also carries impressive performance, efficiency and security benefits in comparison to its predecessor.
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But despite these obvious selling points, uptake of the new protocol has been painstaking and protracted. At present, three out of the five global regions have just 50% IPv6 membership (or thereabouts), with the vendors of IoT devices and other personal machines particularly slow to react. Aussie Broadband’s network engineer John Alexander took exception to this lethargy at the recent Apricot conference, pointing out that while his company was almost ready to go 100% IPv6, it was being held back because much hardware is not yet compatible with the new technology.
IPv4 Still Has Significance
It’s for that reason that IPv4 still has a crucial role to play. As Cerf noted at the Mobile World Congress, dual stack capability of IPv4 and IPv6 infrastructure is the way forward, with the latter providing enough room for the online community to continue expanding and the former offering a supportive safety net for those not yet able to transition.
Of course, the dwindling number of IPv4 addresses is certainly a cause for concern, and has reshaped the way in which these addresses are managed. Whereas the world’s five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) were initially established to allocate and keep tabs on IPv4 addresses, the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses from the central free pool has made RIRs’ role as a distributor obsolete.
Unfortunately, RIRs have been heavily resistant to a free market approach to IPv4 distribution. The regional registries, for example, have thrown up barriers to the leasing of IPv4 addresses, despite the fact that leasing is often the only practical way for SMEs to obtain the IPv4 addresses they need due to their overall scarcity and stockpiling by big corporations.
Regulatory Intervention May Be Required
For the IPv4 market to function efficiently and fairly, as IP solutions provider LARUS argued in a recent white paper, RIRs cannot be allowed to wield supreme authority over IP property. The recognition of the property value of IPv4 assets is critical for the proper functioning of the trade in IPv4 addresses, but given RIRs’ intransigence, national and international authorities may be required to step in in order to make the IP marketplace a fairer and more equitable place to do business.
Of course, solving the problems of the IPv4 market should not preclude a continued and accelerated transition towards IPv6. As companies drag their feet on shifting to IPv6, the task of speeding up the transition to IPv6 may also soon fall to government authorities. For example, the European Commission has not ruled out introducing regulatory measures if progress remains unsatisfactory and the US federal government has been issuing memos on the matter as far back as 2005.
Given that the internet is such a vital resource that has become an essential component of so many of our daily actions, transactions and interactions, it’s incumbent upon industry regulators to make the IPv4 marketplace less obstructive and more accessible to all, without losing sight of the need to ease the transition towards IPv6 through greater support mechanisms. The interconnectivity of our connected planet may just depend upon it.