IP addresses are about to run out. Will the world end?
With IPv4 providing only 4.3 billion addresses, we all knew that the end of the reckless and fancy-free Internet era was coming -- we just didn't know when. The death knell has started to ring. Asia is on its knees plaintively pleading for its fix of IP addresses. Smartphones, the fastest growing market, will soon be unable to connect to the Internet. You might turn on your desktop PC, only to be told that you need to wait for an IP address to become available.
In short, it's now high time to consider our options.
The problem lies in lackluster support for IPv4's replacement: IPv6. Sure, network adapters in desktops and laptops have supported IPv6 for a long time. Windows and Linux have supported it since the days of Windows 98, and even Mac finally supports it with OS X.
A sticky situation
The biggest growth sector, however -- smartphones -- is another story entirely. Android, iPhone and Symbian support IPv6, but only over Wi-Fi. It's not their fault, though: mobile operators don't support IPv6. 3G over IPv6 has been tested, but it still hasn't been rolled out to consumers. In all likelihood, we will have to wait until the roll-out of 4G before IPv6 is used for mobile data -- and with some 300 million smartphones expected to be activated in 2011, that might be too late.
PC users have the same problem: your computer might support IPv6, but the number of ISPs that support IPv6 is pitiful.
What can we do about it, then? Not a whole lot. It's down to ISPs, mobile operators and backhaulers to exchange their IPv4 hardware for the IPv6 equivalent. To be fair, a lot of the Internet's backbone is ready to handle IPv6 -- and heavy hitters like Google are already on board -- but unfortunately, it all comes down to the last mile conundrum. Running an IPv6 link between America and Europe simply requires a couple of big IPv6 routers, but running it to your front door or to every 3G pylon in the country is difficult and expensive work.
Then, if that wasn't bad enough, ISPs would need to send each of their customers an IPv6 modem, the cost of which would be astronomical.
In other words, due to classic market factors we're probably going to run out of IP addresses. An IPocalypse, however, thanks to some reserved blocks of addresses, is unlikely. The U.S. military isn't going to find itself locked out of its own defense system, for example. If we're not careful, though, public IP addresses may actually become a tradeable commodity.
One day soon, you might wake up to find your IP address re-assigned to someone more important, or someone with more money. Better yet, you won't be able to get online to find out your ISP's customer services telephone number -- and you won't be able to make any calls with your disconnected smartphone, anyway.