Global efforts to address the problem of the depleting pool of numbers used to identify resources connected to the Internet have reached Caribbean shores. Across the world, adopting the next-generation Internet standard, known as IPv6, is no longer seen as an option but as an imperative. Calls for the Caribbean to wake up and address the need to update the region’s computer networks are growing louder and more frequent. But the question remains, is anyone listening?
Internet Growing Pains
Every device connected to the Internet is identified by a unique address. Internet Protocol, commonly referred to in technical circles as IP, is the set of rules used by computers to communicate with each other over the Internet or any other packet-switched network.
The IPv4 format has a limit of 4,300 million possible IPv4 addresses. When IPv4 was introduced in 1981, in the early stages of the Internet’s development, it was thought that that number of IPv4 addresses was more than adequate. At that time, very large blocks of addresses were allocated to individuals and organisations using the nascent Internet.
As the World Wide Web evolved and the commercial potential of the Internet became apparent, the number of new users of the Internet grew exponentially. So did the number of devices being connected to the Internet. The engineers responsible for overseeing the Internet’s development did not take long to realise the implication. The phenomenal growth experienced within the first decade of the Internet meant that the number of IPv4 addresses would eventually be depleted. A new addressing scheme would be needed to ensure longer-term availability of addresses for devices connecting to the Internet. And so the work of developing a new addressing scheme began. The update to the protocol, called IPv6, was introduced in 1999.
IPv4 allows 32 bits for an IP address and therefore has 232 (roughly 4.3 × 109) possible addresses. In contrast, IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, for a possible 2128 (approximately 3.4 × 1038) addresses. That is a really, really big number. This substantial increase in addresses available under IPv6 allows for many more devices and users on the Internet. It also provides for higher efficiency in Internet traffic routing and greater flexibility in allocating addresses. IPv6 also implements additional features not present in IPv4. For example, it simplifies aspects of address assignment, network renumbering, and router announcements when network connectivity providers are changed.
Differences between IPv4 and IPv6
At a ceremony in Miami in February 2011, the last batches of IPv4 addresses were disbursed to the five regional Internet registries (RIRs) that manage the allocation and registration of Internet number resources within the different regions of the world.
The global scarcity of IPv4 addresses presents a problem of unprecedented magnitude. Ultimately it involves anything that touches the Internet, from the lowliest netbooks to the most powerful routers. Internet stakeholders who do not upgrade their systems to accommodate IPv6 addresses will be unable to introduce new services or access IPv6 services. Existing IPv4 systems can be maintained, but their growth in the future is impossible.
The problem varies according to need. An organisation with a few web-connected servers may not need many public IP addresses, and internal networks are not generally affected by the IPv4 shortage. A major telecommunications carrier or Internet service provider (ISP) has a bigger problem as user appetite to download videos, shop online, play networked games, post Facebook and Twitter updates, and send email grows. With a burgeoning customer base taxing Internet resources, dealing with the transition to IPv6 is not a question of if, but when.Slow Global AdoptionFor all of its advantages, global adoption of IPv6 has been painfully slow. In terms of general worldwide deployment, the new protocol is still very much in its infancy. Deployment of IPv6 is, however, accelerating, especially in the Asia-Pacific region and some European countries. By comparison, the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean are lagging.1999 - 2011 IPv6 Address Allocations and Requests
A major reason for the slow adoption is the incompatibility of IPv6 with existing IPv4-based networks and equipment. Deploying IPv6 essentially creates a parallel, independent network. Many network operators simply cannot—or think they cannot—be bothered with the hassle and expense involved in moving to IPv6.
Network managers and computer administrators have been able to delay transition to IPv6 because technology such as network address translation (NAT) lets ISPs, corporations, and even home users share a single IPv4 address among multiple devices. But such deferral techniques do not address the fundamental problem that led to the creation IPv6 in the first place. IPv4 address depletion is real and accelerating. Increasing global Internet penetration rates means more people online—people who want to attach servers, PCs, phones, tablets, smart meters, automobiles, TVs, video game consoles, and home broadband network routers to the Internet. The IPv4 Internet is bursting at the seams.
The imminent exhaustion of IPv4 addresses can have profoundly negative implications for Caribbean countries that aspire to use the Internet to build knowledge-based economies. Deliberate and structured action is necessary to ensure that countries in the region prepare adequately for IPv6 adoption. This matter with must be addressed with strategy and urgency.
Some argue that the larger carriers in the region, like Cable and Wireless and Columbus Communication, have enough unallocated IPv4 addresses for the Caribbean to not have to worry about depletion any time soon. The challenge, however, lies in the fact that Internet growth in the region continues to increase at an exponential rate. As broadband, e-government, distance learning, mobile apps, and other digital content creation initiatives continue to increase, a greater demand in placed on Internet addresses. The higher we push Internet utilisation in the region, the greater overhead there is to manage that IPv4 space. Network administrators must weigh the associated overhead costs of managing legacy IPv4 systems against the cost of transition to IPv6, which brings easier management.
Supporting the Transition
Internationally, the technological community, government, and private sectors have been preparing for IPv6 for over a decade. Numerous governments, through partnerships with the private sectors and civil society, have engaged in initiatives to ensure that national users have Internet access via the new protocol. Service providers and content suppliers, too, have steadily been deploying IPv6 capabilities on their infrastructures. Computer operating system makers are also playing their part to ensure that end users are almost universally equipped with IPv6-ready devices.
Make no mistake. IPv6 deployment is vital to the continued growth and stability of the Internet in the Caribbean. Key regional organisations such as the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) are already championing the needed IPv6-ready networks and raising awareness among governments, policymakers, ISPs, and the business community.
Meanwhile, the regional Internet technological community is proactively involved in a range of cooperative initiatives to raise awareness and prepare the technical infrastructure for large-scale IPv6 adoption. Bodies such as the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG) have been actively working to ensure that the region’s network administrators and technicians have access to the knowledge, training, equipment, and education necessary to join the IPv6 Internet.
The International community is also providing strong support. Two RIRs cover the Caribbean. The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) and the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC) currently work in close partnership with the CTU and CaribNOG to provide training, advice, and technical support for the region. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Society, and the International Telecommunications Union also play significant roles in hosting workshops and seminars to raise awareness and build technical capacity in the region.
Transitioning to IPv6
The cost, hassle, and difficulties of adopting the next-generation Internet standard so far have outweighed its advantages for many large network operators in the region. However, there are encouraging signs of the region’s transition to IPv6.
Last March, the World IPv6 Forum welcomed Grenada as its newest country member with the establishment of the IPv6 Forum Grenada. On the ISP front, Columbus Communications, one of the major telecom service providers in the Caribbean, has taken a refreshingly proactive approach to IPv6. Its subsidiaries in Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Curacao all successfully participated in the 2011 World IPv6 Day. The hope is for other carriers in the region to follow Columbus’s lead in making a deliberate effort to advance IPv6 awareness and adoption.
The transition will not be difficult for companies that do not have many operations visible over the public Internet and do not have a big appetite for new IPv4 addresses. Carriers and ISPs, though, face greater demands for IPv4 addresses and have to move faster. Mobile phone use and broadband deployments will be increasingly significant drivers for IPv4 demand. IPv6 adoption is inevitable.
Still, there remain several obstacles. IPv6 is simply not as mature as IPv4, and hardware and software support is still not as comprehensive or ubiquitous as it needs to be. Fortunately, Google and Facebook have relatively aggressive IPv6 migration plans. Efforts by these Internet titans are expected to help motivate others web-based service companies and hardware suppliers to offer IPv6 services and provide better IPv6 support.
Call to Action
For the Caribbean, even though many organisations and users may not now have pressing or immediate need for IPv6, there's no time like the present to get started. The Internet is simply too important to the social and economic development of the region to leave to chance.
National and regional stakeholder groups must amplify efforts to support and promote awareness and educational activities. National governments should adopt regulatory and economic incentives to encourage IPv6 adoption. Standards agencies can also require IPv6 compatibility in computing equipment procurement procedures. Governments can also lead by example by officially adopting IPv6 within government agencies and requiring it of service providers who must connect to government networks. Everyone has a part to play.
Securing stability of IP addresses is necessary for maintaining the sustainable, long-term development of a ubiquitous and open Internet in the Caribbean. Everyone responsible for managing an Internet-connected network should just take the plunge, start planning, and set a timetable to implement IPv6 as if the future of the region’s networks depended on it. The truth is that it does.