Internet address shortage sparks call for upgrade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am

Governments and private enterprises on the mainland and in other fast-growing Asian economies are being urged to hasten upgrading of their internet infrastructure, after the global pool of free online addresses was depleted early this week.

The Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (Apnic) considers the rapid expansion of broadband networks and services in Asia during the past decade as the main cause of the shortage of addresses. The mainland uses more internet addresses than anywhere else in the region.

Australia-based Apnic is one of the world's five regional internet registries, which are the not-for-profit organisations in charge of managing the allocation and registration of internet protocol (IP) addresses. These are the unique numerical identifiers that enable computers, smartphones and other devices to communicate on the internet.

'Strict allocation policies are in place to ensure IP addresses are available to those with a demonstrated need,' Paul Wilson, the director general of Apnic, said yesterday.

The online addresses now in scarce supply are based on the old and widely adopted standard called Internet Protocol version 4, commonly referred to as IPv4. It provides for about 4.3 billion IP addresses.

The allocation of the final internet addresses based on the IPv4 standard is equivalent to the last crates of a product leaving a manufacturer's warehouse and going to the regional stores or distribution centres, where they can still be parcelled out to the public.

The free pool of available IPv4 addresses was depleted on Monday after the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, the entity that oversees global IP address allocation, provided Apnic with two of the last five 'blocks' of addresses. The two blocks amounted to about 33 million IPv4 addresses.

'It's only a matter of time before the regional internet registries and internet service providers must start denying requests for IPv4 address space,' said Raul Echeberria, the chairman of the Number Resource Organisation, the umbrella group of the five registries.

Geoff Huston, the chief scientist at Apnic, said the registry would make IPv4 allocations from its free pool as per current policy for another three to six months. 'So sometime around June or July, we expect to run out of IPv4 addresses,' Huston said. 'When we get down to the very last lot of 17 million IPv4 addresses, Apnic will provide a single unit of a further 1,000 IPv4 addresses to service providers and no more.'

Apnic wants faster, broader and definite action from governments, internet service providers and businesses to adopt what it considers the next-generation internet protocol, called IPv6.

This was developed in 1999 precisely to address the anticipated shortage in IPv4 addresses.

'Every one of the current world population of 6.9 billion people could be assigned an address range 19 orders of magnitude greater than the entire IPv4 address range,' said Craig Skinner, a senior consultant of market research firm Ovum.

Wilfred Kwan, the chief technology officer at Hong Kong-based submariner cable operator Pacnet, said: 'With internet penetration still low in some of the larger Asia-Pacific countries, the need to move to IPv6 is especially important in the region to ensure that these rapidly growing economies have access to the IP addresses that are crucial to enable them to get online.'

Huston noted that deployment of IPv6 across networks has generally been slow because many internet service providers and telecommunications carriers have adopted a wait-and-see-attitude.

'Many government agencies around the world have formed IPv6 plans,' Huston said. 'In the industry, however, that is not so clear.

'We don't see as much support for IPv6 in 3G networks. There's very little support also among internet service providers.

'We're hoping that the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses serves as a very clear message to everyone in the industry, whether they are in the US or China, that if they want new customers tomorrow, the only way they are going to be able to that is by taking up IPv6 seriously across their entire infrastructure.'

He said networks must be able to support both IPv4 and IPv6 standards during a transition period lasting several years.

Based on data from Apnic, the mainland's three major telecommunications carriers would need such an IP upgrade because they were among the world's top 18 users of IP addresses last year. China Mobile, the world's largest wireless network operator, was allocated 4.19 million IP addresses last year. About 25 per cent of total IP allocations for Apnic last year and in 2009 were allocated to the mainland.

Apnic had a 46 per cent share of the world total of 189.4 million IP addresses in 2009 and a 48 per cent share of the 248.8 million total addresses last year.