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The internet's IP addresses are running out: Can IPv6 save the day?

05/15/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/14/2016 05:59 EDT
It turns out even the internet operates within finite dimensions.

The web is about to exhaust its supply of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Now, technology companies are scrambling to get onto a new system to route internet traffic to the right place.

IP addresses are like the internet's phone numbers. Under the web's current system, there are billions of them — 4.3 billion to be exact. But as more of us do more and more online, those addresses are being gobbled up. And soon, very soon, that supply will run out.

"The second half of 2015, maybe if we're lucky we could stretch it to early 2016, but we're definitely at the 11th hour," says Pascal Tellier, chief information officer of the internet service provider Teksavvy.

So, what happens once the 11th hour passes and the current stock is at last exhausted? A new system is available and brings with it a nearly unfathomable number of new IP addresses. But switching to the new system is expensive and time consuming. Not surprisingly, most technology companies — which will be directly affected — have been slow to implement the new technology.

The problem is at some point, those on the old system won't be able to access content delivered by the new system.

"Over time, you'll realize you wont be able to reach half the internet. You won't be able to watch the video you want to watch. You won't be able to get the content you want to get," said Gabriel Blanchard, Teksavvy's network architect.

At issue is one of the weirdest quirks of the internet's history. In 1981, as the internet was being built, volunteers created a system to direct traffic and make sure people landed on the page they were looking for. They called it IPv4 (though they didn't build versions 1, 2 or 3). They made 4.3 billion IP addresses to handle all that traffic. It seemed like an astronomical amount at the time.

50 Billion devices online by 2020

But in 1981, the internet was a mere shadow of what it is today. Now, everything on the internet has an IP address: laptops, mobile phones, tablets, cameras, even coffee makers and thermostats. By 2020, there will be an estimated 50 billion devices online. And that old system is running out of room.

So, a new system was built. The sheer size of IPv6 is staggering. It has more than 340 undecillion IP addresses. That's 340 trillion trillion trillion — or 340 followed by 36 zeros. The Wall Street Journal claims that's enough to assign an IP address to every atom on Earth.

But not everyone is rushing to adapt to the new technology.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) says the transition to IPv6 has been slow, at least in part because the changes are all happening behind the scenes

"Nobody really knows about it. No consumer is calling their ISP and saying, 'Damn it, give me IPv6 today,'" says Byron Holland, CIRA's president and CEO. "Therefore they're not in any rush to do it. And like so often is the case with human behaviour, it's 'I'll do my homework at the last minute.'"

But he says we are quickly approaching the last minute.

 "A secondary market that has sprung up"

"Effectively the North American region is out. There's a few dribs and drabs still around. But really IPv4 as a resource in any meaningful way is exhausted. And you can see that in that there is a secondary market that has sprung up,"  Holland said in an interview this week.

As supply dwindles, the price per IP address will only grow. In 2011, Microsoft bought up more than 660,000 IP addresses from Nortel for $7.5 million US ($11.36 each). Today, each address sells for as much as $14.

At this point, just about everybody is working toward getting their systems IPv6 capable.

Rogers said in a statement that it is "in the process of upgrading to be IPV6 capable and will have more details to share later." Bell says it can't comment at this time as its transition plans have not yet been announced. For its part, Telus says "our work in transitioning is well underway and Telus remains committed to Canada's part in the global transition to IPv6."

You can test your own connection to see if it's IPv6 enabled or not here.

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