Miscounting and misunderstanding addresses

The BBC reports that the end of the Internet world is near. The news organisation is not the first to do so, nor will it be the last, but its story caught my eye the other day.

This report, like far too many in the past few years, is about the Internet running out of Internet Protocol (IP) address space real soon. The BBC report is wrong. Not only is the basic story wrong, but so are almost all of the details presented.

IP addresses have a dual function in the Internet. First, they are used as location information to say where in the network infrastructure a particular computer happens to be. Second, they are used to identify the particular computer (actually a particular interface on a particular computer).

IP addresses can be public or private. Private ones are used within a network and must be translated to public addresses if the user needs to reach another site on the Internet. Public IP addresses are assigned (not sold) by regional IP address registries. There are currently four of these, each with its own geographic scope: ARIN, which covers North America, parts of the Caribbean and Africa south of the equator; RIPE NCC, which covers Europe and Africa north of the equator; APNIC, which covers the Asia-Pacific region; and LATNIC, the newest registry, which covers Latin America. A new registry is being formed that will be responsible for address assignments in Africa.

The BBC report did get it correct that IPv4 has an address space of about 4 billion addresses, but that’s about where the report stopped being right. The BBC says the IPv4 address space will run out sometime in 2005, but the reality is that current projections do not show that it will run out, assuming the current rate of assignments, for almost two decades. The BBC reports that IPv6 will provide 64 billion extra addresses, where it’s actually 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,427 billion extra.

The BBC also reports that “the global distribution of available IP addresses is extremely unbalanced. Most of the numbers remain in the US, where the technology was originally invented.” This is misleading at best. Because addresses are assigned where the need is, it’s far from surprising that a lot of addresses were assigned where the technology was actually used.

But there is no global pre-assignment of addresses — registries get whatever addresses they need when they need them and APNIC assigned more addresses than any other registry in the last two years.

There is no reason to panic. IPv6 is well along in deployment and will be there when we need it.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems

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