You've probably heard about the looming shortage of Internet addresses, even if you've never gone looking for one. But depending on what websites you visit and how you get to them, you may be helping to solve it.
If you go to Google or Facebook through a major carrier in the U.S., Germany or France, for example, there's a decent chance you're using IPv6 [Internet Protocol, Version 6], the next-generation system that has so many addresses that the world may never use them up. Though it's pretty much invisible to end users, the new protocol is already making service providers' networks run better and may be speeding up your connections, too.
"I think a lot of people don't realize how much IPv6 there is out there," said Mat Ford, technical program manager of the Internet Society, the organizer of World IPv6 Launch.
On Tuesday, Ford's group released its latest monthly figures for IPv6 connectivity. Among the findings: More than 66 percent of connections from Verizon Wireless customers to big Internet companies went over IPv6. At T-Mobile USA, IPv6 traffic exceeded 53 percent.
These are measurements of IPv6 traffic to five big Internet companies that make content available via the new protocol: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Akamai.
Mobile is where IPv6 is catching on first, in many cases, because connecting all those devices requires lots of unique addresses. But some wireline networks are getting into the game, too. More than 46 percent of connections from AT&T's wired broadband network used the new protocol, as did about one-third of the traffic from Comcast customers. Outside the U.S., Deutsche Telekom and French carrier Free were both around 29 percent IPv6.
This evolution is invisible to most consumers.
"If you're a Verizon customer and you have a mobile handset, it is quite possible that you're an IPv6 user and you don't know it," said John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN [American Registry for Internet Numbers], which is in charge of addresses for North America.
All smartphones now ship with IPv6 capability. Some home broadband gateways support the new protocol, and some older models can be upgraded by the service provider.
Though consumers may not notice the shift, it's expected to be a critical change for the Internet in the coming years.
Most of the Internet is still made up of PCs, Web servers, phones and other devices that identify themselves using IPv4, a system that was first deployed in 1981 and only has 4.3 billion unique addresses. If there are more than 700 million arrangement could run into problems. And it has: The regional organizations that give out fresh IP addresses all say their IPv4 supplies are running low, and the market for unused address space may be heating up.
The shortage of IPv4 addresses is a hot topic at this week's biannual meeting of ARIN. The organization is getting ready to open a waiting list for companies requesting large numbers of fresh addresses.
IPv6 solves the shortage with a bigger address space that should be able to provide a unique number for everything that will ever get on the Internet. The new protocol languished for years as companies downplayed the coming address drought. But now, in some countries and some parts of the Internet business, those days are over.
Here's more good news: Facebook says about 8 percent of all its members worldwide use IPv6 to reach its content. In the U.S., it's 17.5 percent. Those shares are doubling each year, Facebook software engineer Paul Saab said. Google logs just over 6 percent of its visitors coming over the new protocol.
But while many ISPs and major Internet content providers have made IPv6 partly available and are aggressively rolling it out, a long tail of smaller participants has not.
"As you radiate out from core providers and into the different parts of the Internet, it drops out pretty quick," said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at Dyn Research
Of the top 1,000 websites, as measured by Web analytics company Alexa, only 14.2 percent can be reached via IPv6. In terms of the number of bits traversing the Internet as a whole, there may be an even longer way to go. Reports by the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, one of the largest Internet peering companies, show IPv4 traffic peaking daily at about 3.5Tbps (bits per second). Meanwhile, IPv6 traffic typically peaks at about 30Gbps, suggesting it makes up only about 1 percent of the data going through the exchange.
A world map created by APNIC [Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre] and Google shows IPv6 capability ranging from almost 39 percent in Belgium to zero in many developing countries. While Germany comes in at nearly 20 percent and the U.S. almost 17 percent, few others countries exceed 10 percent.
"It is happening, but it's still piecemeal," APNIC Chief Scientist Geoff Huston said via email. "Just 30 ISPs account for most of the visible IPv6 activity. Now, they are big ISPs and they are influential in the industry, but there are still just 30."
"I don't feel like we're arriving yet on this tipping point where everybody's going to adopt this soon," Dyn's Madory said.
Vint Cerf, ARIN's board chair and Google's chief Internet evangelist, thinks the tide will turn when overall IPv6 use hits about 25 percent. That should happen in the next few years, driven by the need to connect more mobile devices and the Internet of Things, Cerf said.
As for the speed boost that may come with IPv6, it's too early to say whether you'll see it or not. Facebook says it has seen users' News Feeds loading 20 percent to 40 percent faster on mobile devices using IPv6. Tests at Time Warner Cable have shown a 15 percent boost.
The speed increases might happen because users of IPv6 don't have to share an IPv4 address with other subscribers using Network Address Translation, a technique that makes the network work harder. But Facebook's Saab isn't ready to break out the confetti just yet.
"We're still trying to clarify the data," Saab said.