Report on IPv6: Get ready for a mixed Internet world

By Georgia Tech's Brenden Kuerbis and Milton MuellerInternet Identifiers

February 22, 2019

Today the Internet Governance Project published a new report indicating that the transition to a new Internet standard may get stuck somewhere between the old and the new.

The data communications protocol supporting the Internet (IPv4) is almost 40 years old, and its 32-bit address space is too small for the global Internet. A new, “next generation” Internet Protocol (IPv6), has a much larger, 128 bit address space. But the new protocol is not backwards compatible with the existing Internet. For the past 20 years, the Internet technical community has been trying to migrate the entire Internet to the new standard.

The study, titled “The Hidden Standards War: Economic Factors Affecting IPv6 Deployment,” addresses important but often overlooked questions about the technical evolution of the Internet: Will the world converge on IPv6? Will IPv6 die out? Or will we live in a mixed world for the foreseeable future? The study’s authors are Dr. Brenden Kuerbis, a postdoctoral researcher, and Dr. Milton Mueller, a Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. Their independent research was supported in part by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

The research offers a clear-eyed, economically-grounded study of IPv6’s progress and prospects. Many promoters of IPv6 sincerely believe that the new standard must succeed if the Internet is to grow, and assume that the transition is inevitable because of the presumed depletion of the IPv4 address resources. However, by examining the associated network effects, developing the economic parameters for transition, and modeling the underlying economic forces which impact network operator decisions, the study paints a more complex, nuanced picture and reaches several important conclusions.

The good news for IPv6 is:

  • IPv6 won’t become an orphan. Major content providers and fast-growing mobile Internet services are deploying IPv6 and gradually diverting traffic away from the old Internet to native IPv6 networks. It appears as if IPv6 will dominate some parts of the newer, larger-scale parts of the Internet.
  • For network operators that need to grow, particularly mobile networks where the software and hardware ecosystem is mostly converted, IPv6 deployment can make economic sense. It mitigates a major constraint on growth and reduces the operational complexities and costs of large-scale Network Address Translation.

But there is also bad news for IPv6:

  • The incentives of large, fast-growing network operators aren’t the same as those of many other networks that make up the Internet. Many enterprise networks don’t need to grow much and/or may still be lodged in a slower-moving software and hardware ecosystem tied to IPv4.
  • Diffusion is still in early days. Of the 215 economies measured, only 26 (12%) had steadily increasing levels of IPv6 capability over the three year study period. Another 18 countries (8%) had measurable levels of IPv6 deployment but exhibited plateaus in adoption, with IPv6 capability stalled for several years at levels anywhere between 8% (Austria) and 59% (Belgium). This group included numerous mature European economies as well as Canada and Australia. A large majority of economies (169, or 79%) had no appreciable IPv6 deployment. Countries in this group were located in all regions, and included small (Mozambique) and large (China) economies.
  • Because of the costs of IPv6 deployment, there is a strong correlation between higher GDP and IPv6 deployment levels.
  • Networks that deploy IPv6 must maintain backwards compatibility with non-deployers. This imposes a cost penalty on IPv6 users and eliminates some network effects that would degrade or cut off networks that do not convert.
  • Even if they have deployed IPv6, growing networks must continue to acquire scarce, increasingly expensive IPv4 addresses to interconnect with the rest of the Internet. Deploying IPv6 does not immediately end the problem of IPv4 address exhaustion.

The study examined the impact of IPv4 address markets and address scarcity on the transition. It points out that cloud service providers, who need to serve both Internets, are the buyers of the largest amount of IPv4 numbers.

The report concludes that legacy IPv4 will coexist with IPv6 indefinitely. A variety of conversion technologies, and more efficient use of IPv4 addresses using NAT, will support a “mixed world” of the two standards for the foreseeable future.

The study can be freely downloaded in our Research Section.

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