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IP Depletion Crisis: We’re Done, Said the Internet Never

4 min read

So what if the Internet just upped and went KAPUT one day?! As much as we’d like this to be a fictional story – it’s not. In fact, in the 90’s there was another end of the world predicted, and it had nothing to do with the Mayan calendar. Nope, it was all about the 6th element of the current world – the Internet: at the time,Frank Solensky, a member of Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), forecasted some dramatic numbers – the pool of IP addresses was due to run out in 6-10 years. And guess what?! It did, the “end of Internet” or IPv4 depletion happened on the 3rd of February in 2011 when the last of free addresses was assigned by IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority). 

So, how’s the Internet still working, you may ask? Well, good that you did, since in this week’s blog we’re going to cover that and dive deeper into what’s next in the world of the Internet, literally. 

So, what is IP exactly and why is it so important?

IP stands for Internet Protocol, however, we have different internet protocols in use at the current day and age. In a nutshell, IP is the technology that allows for our devices to connect to the web.  Think of it as your computer’s street address: to receive that TikTok from a friend, he would need to know your IP address. Whenever we access the internet through our devices they get assigned a unique, numerical IP address, e.g. 99.48.227.227. This technology’s essential to web infrastructure as without it computers or any other devices wouldn’t be able to send data to one another. 

The depletion happened to a specific IP technology, IPv4 to be exact. The previous IP versions from 0 to 3 were used as experimental between 1977-1979. The technology had been stabilised pretty soon afterwards and IPv4 was introduced in 1981. At the time one variable had been missed though: nobody knew the megaspeed in which the tech industry would develop and how it would gobble up the internet resources making it stretch and push for further innovations. Hence, the IPv6 had been introduced in 1995, when the internet was threatened to crumble in the imminent crisis of IP exhaustion. But not everything was sweet and dandy – the introduction of the new technology brought on the challenges with itself and the topic of IP exhaustion remains relevant even three decades after it’s initial prediction. 

IPv4 vs. IPv6 and why are we still talking about this? 

Originally, the IPv4 had a pool of 4.29 million addresses that were all assigned to different institutions and in 2011 officially declared as gone, a.k.a. the apocalypse of the Internet. Or it would be if not the previously mentioned IPv6, which supports the pool of 340 undecillion addresses. And we know what you’re thinking: why not make the switch to the IPv6 and be done with it. If it were that simple we would all be enjoying a faster and more secure internet today as these are the perks of the new IP technology, as well as, the internet service providers would be free of this ongoing headache of how to make it all work. 

Nonetheless, according to Google only 32.2% of the world’s adopted the technology to this day and the deployment has been incredibly slow. That means that IPv4 is employed by 70% of devices, permanent farewell isn’t going to happen right this instant. The main responsibility of the IPv6 implementation falls on the internet providers and telcos. However, not all are able and prepared to make the substantial investment it requires.

As most of the world is still using the IPv4, the transition would happen in two parts: using both internet protocols at first (meaning making the technology compatible for both of them) and the full switch afterwards. The first part’s severely lagging as the implementation calls for extensive bare-metal and other infrastructure resources only possible with financial investments not all are ready to make. Another point is that older devices only support the widespread IPv4 and in such instances investments would be required not only from the internet providers. As the bigger part of the world is still successfully operating on IPv4 with no intention for making the switch, it’s possible that IPv6 deployment may not pick up it’s speed and the exhaustion may remain a burning problem even with its solution in existence.

The pandemic of things

Let’s be clear – COVID-19 remains a raging topic in every industry. The disease has affected almost every market sector – tech being no different. In early March, the growth of IoT usage was recorded in healthcare, collaboration and web-conferencing software, the latter seeing an increase in traffic by 1080% and average broadband consumption has seen 13%- 60% increase based on the country according to internet providers. The pandemic induced growth of users as well as devices brought attention to the internet infrastructure development and as the numbers rise overall the question of IP remains relevant. 

While IPv6 deployment is the direct solution of the situation, alternative methods are employed to allow for the natural evolution of the internet, meaning more time to make the switch or for other things to come into play. One of them being the monetisation of the unused IPv4 addresses: companies looking for existing IPv4 addresses and leasing them for further use. Think of it as reusable resources – there’s no way to tell how many of the assigned IPv4’s are not in use globally, however, these companies make it their job to find out and alleviate the current problem. 

So, are we out of the woods, yet?

Not quite. As these problems seem incredibly far away while your laptop still fires up and you’re able to send out that email, however, they’re the burning issues in the minds of those responsible for making the internet faster and more reliable. So far the demand is growing incredibly fast while the deployment of new technologies like IPv6 or the same 5G are stunted by financial or regulatory challenges. Yet – all’s in progress and moving in the right direction, so: Dear Internet, we’re definitely not done, yet.