Unleashing the net

IPv6: addressing the address issue.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Apparently, the internet is running out.

The internet depends for its existence on internet protocol (IP) addresses (1). These are the numbers that define senders and receivers of information – for example, servers that host websites or the people who use email. The current standard for IP addresses, IPv4, makes it theoretically possible to create a maximum of 4.3billion IP addresses – which is less than the total population of the world (2).

This is unfortunate, because for today’s technology to be developed to its full potential – particularly in the areas of mobile and household applications – we need more than one IP address for each user. Many of the IT concepts championed in business today – for example, grid computing (where the shared processing power of multiple computers is applied to the same problem at the same time) – are unlikely to be used to maximum benefit without a far greater number of IP addresses.

But this is all academic anyway, because due to allocation and management inefficiencies, only a small proportion of the IP addresses made available by IPv4 can be used.

Of the IP addresses we can use, it is estimated that two thirds have already been used up, and that the remaining third is rapidly running out (3). Various methods are being used to inflate the number of available IP addresses, but these methods tend to be convoluted, usually come at a cost (for example flexibility or security), and cannot be used indefinitely. The developing world in particular, which lags behind in internet adoption and the development of applications, stands to lose out from the lack of IP addresses.

To solve this problem, a new standard for IP addresses has been developed – IPv6 (4). This standard can support the existence of 340billion, billion, billion, billion IP addresses (5). At ‘IPv6 and the Future of the Internet in the UK’, an event that took place at University College London in January 2003, the UK IPv6 Taskforce outlined the barriers to adopting this new standard (6).

Christian de Larrinaga, chairman of the Internet Society of England, introduced the event by asking: ‘Who knows what applications we could be using today, if we were already using IPv6 widely?’ Latif Ladid, president of the IPv6 Forum and the European Commission IPv6 Taskforce, drew an analogy with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century, arguing that Pope Gregory XIII ‘had to reboot the system’ (7).

In an attempt to inspire the audience, Ladid showed us a slide of the first moon landing, noting that today ‘we lack some of the big missions that have changed our lives’. Enabling the internet’s full potential to be used by the world’s entire population is indeed laudable. But the problem is, it’s hard for anyone who isn’t a technology geek to get excited about a new way of arranging a string of numbers, regardless of the benefits.

Peter Hovell, head of the IPv6 group at BTexact Technologies, explained the problem of convincing the marketplace of the need for IPv6: ‘The only way you can justify this technology is if you make money or if you reduce costs.’ (8) Unfortunately, ‘without users, there are no revenue streams; without revenue streams, there are no applications’.

Because the market is not a rational system, it cannot adopt new standards on the basis of abstract merit. This is not always a problem – as Mark Birbeck points out elsewhere on spiked, the importance of the nineteenth-century standardisation of the spacing between railway tracks eclipsed the fact that the standard adopted was not the best available one (9).

For our technology to develop further, we need a more thoroughgoing approach to the basics alongside big visions – and we need the extra IP addresses made available by IPv6.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Standard questions, by Mark Birbeck

(1) See the definition of IP address on

(2) Why a new internet protocol? section of the UK IPv6 Task Force website

(3) IPv6 in the internet (.pdf 10.1 MB), Axel Clauberg, presentation at ‘IPv6 and the Future of the Internet in the UK’, 16 January 2003

(4) See the definition of IPv6 on

(5) Why a new internet protocol? section of the UK IPv6 Task Force website

(6) See the IPv6 and the Future of the Internet in the UK section of the UK IPv6 Task Force website

(7) See the Internet Society of England, IPv6 Forum, and European Commission IPv6 Task Force websites

(8) See the IPv6 section of the BTexact Technologies website

(9) See Standard questions, by Mark Birbeck

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Topics Politics


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