IPv6 transition could still go wrong: APNIC

07 Jun 2012

This time last year, big-name web content providers such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Yahoo! supported both IPv6 and IPv4 for 24 hours to test the impact on service quality.

On Wednesday, those companies and many other web sites turned on IPv6 permanently as part of the World IPv6 Launch event organized by the Internet Society, as did home router manufacturers and ISPs in over a hundred countries.

But while the event serves as a major milestone for IPv6, the road to transition is fraught with peril, and last-mile operators remain a significant bottleneck in the IPv6 adoption process, says APNIC chief scientist Geoff Huston.

Speaking at a World IPv6 Launch event in Hong Kong, Huston said that with both smartphones and most IP transit networks essentially IPv6-ready, the CPE device and the last mile, both in wireline and wireless, “have been abysmal failures” in terms of IPv6 readiness primarily because of the lack of economic incentive to embrace the technology.

“Last-mile broadband is a difficult and tough business with low margins and high costs, so no one’s spending money to upgrade to IPv6 because you can’t charge the customer extra for it,” Huston said. “That’s not an attractive proposition, especially when you’re only charging $25 a month.”

Complicating things is the fact that many ISPs now allow customers to buy their own modems. “That’s good for saving costs, but how do you get them to upgrade when the CPE works just fine and will last ten years? How do you explain to them they have to upgrade to IPv6?” Huston pointed out.

On the wireless side, running both IPv6 and IPv4 on 3G essentially doubles the cost of delivering data traffic between the device and the tower, Huston said, though he adds that LTE will change that, if only because “they’re starting to roll out at a time when there’s no v4 left.”

Indeed, APNIC – one of five regional internet registrars in charge of allocating IP addresses – ran out of IPv4 blocks in April last year. Europe is expected to run out of them by August this year, and North America by the middle of next year.

Despite the near-depletion of IPv4, however, IPv6 usage is still stunningly low. For example, according to APNIC figures, of all the people accessing Google’s site, only 0.6% are doing so via IPv6. Huston said the industry is in a “frightening” transition period in which IPv4 resources have been depleted, but IPv6 isn’t yet fully in place.

Huston called on the industry to work together and focus on the bigger picture of transitioning to IPv6 as quickly as possible. He also strongly advised ISPs to sell off any IPv4 blocks they have but aren’t using.

“Hording just makes the problem worse,” Huston said, warning of the dangers of a volatile market for IPv4 addresses in which prices could range from $11 per address to over $1,000. “At that price the Internet cracks and breaks up under stress. But if it’s too low, there’s not enough incentive to move to IPv6.”

Overall, Huston insisted that for all the recognition within the telecoms and IT sectors that IPv6 is the next step forward, there are no assurances that the transition will go smoothly unless everyone commits to IPv6 with real plans for quick implementation.

“It’s a completely open script at this point, and literally anything could happen, good or bad,” he said. “Humans are capable of doing really stupid things – we can still get this wrong and destroy the fabric of the Internet.”

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