The spectrum auction's forgotten issue

Without the deployment of IPv6, there will be no addresses to assign to the new 4G-enabled devices, says Axel Pawlik

In all the talk about the 4G services that should come out of next year's spectrum auction, the question of IP addressing deserves serious attention, says Axel Pawlik.

There's been a lot of buzz around Ofcom's plans to sell off the 4G LTE mobile spectrum in early to mid-2012. Auctioning the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands to the likes of O2 and Vodafone will be a major step towards faster data speeds, already enjoyed in many developing and developed countries.

Competition is fierce because the spectrum is a finite space or resource, and one that offers huge potential benefits in terms of internet user experience.

However, it is not the only technology resource required to improve connectivity, of which there is a limited supply. The IP addressing system is also needed, as any device that is designed to connect to the internet requires an IP address to communicate with other devices on the network.

Demand for 3G and 4G LTE has been fuelled by the proliferation of smartphones and mobile broadband data services as more people access the internet on the go. Such expansion of connected devices has also contributed to the exhaustion of the current internet address standard, IPv4.

When the internet was created, four billion IP addresses — the individual numerical label assigned to every connected device — seemed enough.

Dearth of addresses for 4G-enabled devices

However, IPv4 is almost depleted and if the new version, IPv6, is not deployed, there will be no addresses to assign to the new 4G-enabled devices.

While not infinite, the IPv6 address space is based on 128-bit numbers and consequently large enough that scarcity will not be an issue for network operators for the foreseeable future. Rather than being decided by auction, allocation works on a requirement-based process managed by the five regional internet registries, which hold and distribute the resource.

This system works to globally and locally agreed principles, so it's not constrained to a particular country, as in the case of 4G. There is no competition for addresses. Every stakeholder has enough to be able to meet its need, enabling existing organisations to grow, and new entrants to connect to the internet.

Many devices are now being shipped IPv6-ready but that compatibility alone is not enough. IPv6 is not compatible with IPv4, so if the networks aren't IPv6-ready...

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...these new devices will still not be able to connect with other equipment on the internet that is only using IPv4. That is unless a process called dual-stacking is used.

This process allows IPv4 and IPv6 to run side by side, communicating either individually, or using a hybrid of the two. Dual-stacking acts as a working stopgap but is not ideal because it comes with added cost and technological complexity.

Complete IPv6 deployment needs to take place across the board to avoid a two-tiered internet, one on IPv4 and the other on IPv6. Countries such as Russia, South Korea, Kenya and even Nepal either have or will have 4G LTE mobile internet networks by the end of 2011 but the UK will probably have to wait until 2014 before its inhabitants can access such networks.

Some have complained that the UK has fallen behind on 4G LTE — Norway and Sweden received super-fast 4G LTE mobile broadband services in 2009 — but there has been relatively little acknowledgement of the situation on IPv4 exhaustion and IPv6 deployment.

Russia is also one of the leading countries in IPv6 deployment, along with France, Ukraine, China, US, Poland, Sweden, Canada, The Netherlands and Japan which all make up the top 10 countries by deployment levels. It would seem that just like with 4G LTE adoption, the UK is just not keeping pace.

Growth in smartphone ownership

Smartphone and tablet ownership is on the rise and there has been a growing realisation of the role mobile can play in meeting the government's national broadband commitment by 2015.

Any significant delay in 4G LTE puts this goal at risk and will further weaken competition and user experience to the detriment of UK consumers.

Similarly, any delay in IPv6 deployment could prevent long-term internet growth and global communication, as new devices that are IPv6-only will not be able to communicate with the IPv4-only networks.

Axel Pawlik is managing director of the Ripe NCC, an independent not-for-profit organisation that supports the infrastructure of the internet for Europe, the Middle East and parts of central Asia. While at the University of Dortmund, Pawlik contributed to the establishment of Unix networking as a publicly available service in Germany. He also founded EUnet Deutschland GmbH, developing it into one of the strongest EUnet networks in Europe.

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