Will Internet Protocol Version 6 be our backbone operator? Wireless carriers push for this change
by Max Smetannikov
06 July 2000 - As a billion mobile phones connect to the Internet in the next 36 months, which backbone will carry the traffic? The one that can handle the next generation of Internet Protocol, known as version 6, representatives of the IPv6 community insist.
"I'd say there is a very good probability that the IPv6 spec will be mandated in the upcoming 3GPP [Third-Generation Partnership Program] wireless standard," said Steve Deering, a technical leader at Cisco Systems. Deering, the inventor of IP Multicast and one of the lead designers of IPv6, made his remarks before an audience consisting mostly of Internet service providers (ISPs) at a recent technical meeting of the North American Network Operators Group.
Wireless carriers standardizing on IPv6 could pressure commercial backbone operators for the first time to implement IPv6. Until now, IPv6 deployment has been done mostly by nonprofit and scientific organizations.
While a few large backbone operators, such as Qwest Communications International and Sprint, have launched exploratory projects looking into deploying IPv6, those efforts are not very well-funded and to a large degree are driven by the curiosity of engineers experimenting with the new protocol.
Some engineers working for commercial backbones said they are using decommissioned equipment and decommissioned links to play with the new standard in their spare time. Most said they don't anticipate these efforts will get any serious attention from their executive offices unless a clear business case for IPv6 deployment emerges.
And that means the commercial Internet isn't ready for IPv6 yet. A lot of networking equipment still doesn't support the standard, and the operational history of IPv6 networks is spotty. At a NANOG panel dedicated to sharing information on how IPv6 networks behave, most speakers demonstrated that using the new protocol sometimes leads to completely unexpected results. William Maton, head of corporate network services at the Canadian government-funded Communications Research Centre, used a picture of a nuclear explosion to illustrate the impact of an unintended router programming mistake on his network's performance.
However, the fact that backbone companies are giving a cold shoulder to IPv6 at this stage might lead wireless providers - which are finding a new niche in the market as ISPs - to build a backbone of their own to exclusively handle traffic generated by mobile Internet users. Deering told NANOG attendees the idea is being entertained by some wireless providers, though he didn't name names. That backbone, of course, would be built using native IPv6 protocol.
What companies would likely benefit from an IPv6 backbone?
- AT&T Wireless
- BellSouth Wireless Data
- Omnipoint, which was recently purchased by Xircom
- Pacific Bell Wireless
- SBC Communications
- Sprint PCS, with WorldCom - if the merger goes through
- Verizon Wireless, which includes Bell Atlantic Mobile, GTE, Vodafone AirTouch
Obviously, many of the same companies that might be thinking of switching to IPv6 own and run large Internet backbones. However, IPv6 innovators on the data side of these companies indicated they have not heard from their wireless counterparts thus far, which suggests that if any IPv6 backbones are being developed by wireless carriers, it is being done in stealth and separately from any other IPv6 efforts.
Out of character
Wireless industry insiders said that, while the idea of building their own backbone has merit, it would be very out of character for wireless providers to jump ahead of the technology curve and build a full-fledged IPv6 commercial backbone ahead of ISPs.
"I just can't see them [wireless carriers] ever being at a point where they will be in a position where they are ahead of someone," said Ray Taylor, a wireless evangelist and business development officer at AlterEgo Networks, a company that translates Web content so it can be understood by various wireless devices.
This doesn't rule out the possibility, though, that wireless carriers might deploy IPv6 on in-region data networks they already operate, thus avoiding putting a lot of traffic on commercial backbones.
Taylor, a former Bell Atlantic Mobile executive, said wireless carriers expect IPv6 will be a part of the 3G standard. He acknowledged that most wireless carriers are in a position to route at least some of their Internet traffic without buying transit from ISPs. "A lot of them have built their own ATM [Asynchronous Transfer Mode] rings, so from that standpoint, they really have deployed their own backbones in their regions," he said.
The bottom line: Keeping in-region traffic that is generated by people on mobile phones using IP services on proprietary IPv6 backbones, and then peering with existing IPv4 backbones to gain access to some Web content and other Internet users, becomes a very realistic scenario, Taylor said.