RIRs distribute IP numbers to the local Internet registries (LIRs) and national Internet registries (RIRs), which in turn distribute IP numbers to smaller ISPs, companies, and individuals further down the ladder.
IP numbers & the transition to IPv6
The pool of IP numbers under IPv4, which was introduced in 1983, contains some four billion numbers, which were initially thought to be sufficient to satisfy the demand for addresses. However, in February 2011, IANA announced that it no longer had blocks of IPv4 available for allocation to RIRs. In September 2015, ARIN, announced the depletion of its own pool of IPv4 addresses.
The depletion of IPv4 numbers has been accelerated, in recent years, through the introduction Internet-enabled devices (such as mobile phones, personal organisers, game consoles, and home appliances) and the rise of worldwide Internet connectivity. The developments in the area of the Internet of Things (IoT) also led to an increase in the demand for IP addresses. The concern that IP numbers might run out and eventually inhibit the further development of the Internet has led the technical community to take three major actions:
- Rationalise the use of the existing pool of IP numbers through the introduction of Network Address Translation (NAT).
- Address the wasteful address allocation algorithms used by the RIRs by introducing Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR).
- Introduce a new version of the TCP/IP protocol – IPv6 – which provides a much bigger pool of IP numbers (over 340,000,000,000,000,000,000).
The response of the Internet technical community to the problem of a potential shortage of IP numbers is an example of prompt and proactive management. While both NAT and CIDR provided a quick fix for the problem, a proper long-term solution is the transition to IPv6. Although IPv6 was introduced back in 1996, its deployment has been very slow, due to lack of awareness about the need for transition, as well as limited funds for investment in new equipment in developing countries.
One of the main challenges facing the deployment of IPv6 is the lack of backward compatibility between IPv6 and IPv4. Networks using IPv6 cannot communicate directly to those, still dominant today, using IPv4. Since it is very likely that networks using IPv4 and IPv6 will coexist during the forthcoming period, it is important to ensure that new – IPv6-based – networks do not remain islands. A technical solution will involve special tunnelling between the two types of networks, which will cause more complex routing on the Internet and a few other collateral problems.
Given the complexity of the transition to IPv6, developing countries may benefit from the delayed start and the possibility of introducing IPv6-based networks from the beginning. In this process, developing countries will need technical assistance.
Apart from the problem of transition, the policy framework for IPv6 distribution will require a proper distribution of IP numbers, demanding the introduction of open and competitive mechanisms to address the needs of end-users in the most optimal way. Even with the introduction of IPv6, an ‘artificial’ scarcity of IP numbers could still arise, if those responsible for allocating them at local level, such as ISPs, choose to abuse their power and link such allocation to, for example, the purchase of other services, thus affecting the availability and price of IP numbers.
The ongoing transition from IPv4 to IPv6 is a process that requires attention and involvement from a wide range of stakeholders. Technical organisations such as IANA, the RIRs, and the IETF need to ensure an efficient and effective administration of IPv6 resources, and to develop the necessary standards and specifications for the use of IPv6. ISPs have to both implement techniques that ensure communication between IPv4 and IPv6, and introduce IPv6 in their networks and services. Producers of equipments (operating systems, network equipment, etc) and applications (business software, smart cards, etc) need to ensure that their products and applications are compatible with IPv6. And providers of information society services have to implement IPv6 within their servers.
Experts have warned that a slow transition to IPv6 risks leading to the so-called ‘technical fragmentation’ of the Internet, where two parallel internets, one IPV4 enabled, and the other one IPv6 enabled, will not be able to interact with one another. This was underlined, for example, in a report published in early 2016 by the World Economic Forum (‘Internet Fragmentation: an overview’), according to which only about 4% of the Internet is currently servicing IPv6 usage.
Changes in TCP/IP and cybersecurity
Security was not a major issue for the original developers of the Internet, as, at that time, the Internet consisted of a closed network of research institutions. With the expansion of the Internet to two billion users worldwide and its growing importance as a commercial tool, the question of security is high up on the list of Internet governance issues.
Because the Internet architecture was not designed with security in mind, incorporating intrinsic security will require substantial changes to the very basis of the Internet, the TCP/IP. The new IPv6 protocol provides some security improvements, but still falls short of a comprehensive solution. Such protection would require considerable modifications to TCP/IP. Efforts to create formal standards bring private technical decisions made by system builders into the public realm; in this way, standards battles can bring to light unspoken assumptions and conflicts of interest. The very passion with which stakeholders contest standards decisions should alert us to the deeper meaning beneath the nuts and bolts.
Changes in TCP/IP and the problem of limited bandwidth
To facilitate the delivery of multimedia content (e.g. Internet telephony, or video on demand), it is necessary to provide a quality of service (QoS) capable of guaranteeing a minimum level of performance. QoS is particularly important in delay-sensitive applications, such as live event broadcasting, and is often difficult to achieve due to bandwidth constraints. The introduction of QoS may require changes in the IP, including a potential challenge for the principle of network neutrality.
Given the continuous evolution of network technologies, and the challenges underlined above, organisations in the technical community have started looking into the possibility of developing a next generation of Internet protocols, that would be better suited to the realities of the evolving technical landscape. As an example, in early 2016, the European Telecommunications Standard Institute established a working group tasked with ‘identifying the requirements for next generation protocols and network architectures’; the group is expected to analyse issues such as: addressing, security and authentication, requirements from the Internet of Things, requirements from video and content distribution, and requirements from e-commerce.