Internet engineers have been fussing over the imminent shortage of IPv4 addresses for most of the last decade, and people have ignored them in the face of high upgrade costs. But might the countdown really be starting on the last of the 4.3 billion addresses this time?

On 3 February the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the body that oversees address allocations globally, and European regional Internet registry RIPE NCC, is planning a US event to frighten everyone about the state of the diminishing IPv4 pool.

With predictions that the tap will turn off as soon as September 2011, the gun is now to the head, RIPE NCC reckons, as it helps coordinating the handing out of the remaining address ranges to registries around the globe.

“The complete exhaustion of IPv4 addresses means that organisations need to adopt the next generation of IP addressing, IPv6. If they fail to do so, the future growth of the Internet may be in jeopardy,” reads the dramatic invitation.

In many ways, the shortage of the Internet is the Internet’s fault. Nobody really runs the Internet at least not in the sense that there is a single body that dictates that the people using up the address ranges - registrars, ISPs, service providers and corporates - should start migration or face some sort of consequences.

Making this worse is the fact that the Internet has bolted on a profitable private sector business model designed to use up as many IPv4 addresses as possible. It’s in everyone interest that the Internet uses up addresses but nobody has the power to make the companies profiting from this ponder the long-term consequences.

Let’s not panic yet. There has been a large amount of waste and chunks of the IPv4 space were allocated hither and thither without ever being used, so these reserves can be dipped into for some time to come. But the need for IPv6 is now the Internet’s biggest ever upgrade hurdle and one that has to be jumped.

Consumers, including business consumers, needn’t worry unduly about this but there will come a time in the next five years when routers in particular are going to need an upgrade. In some cases, this might be possible through software but in many other cases a new product will be required.

That’s the message for businesses and consumers - the next router should support a dual IP4/IPv6 stack. Even at the low end, some already do such as Billion’s BiPAC 7800NL. D-Link’s DIR-815 is another example that claims to be ‘IPv6 ready’, which is a way of saying it can be upgraded through firmware if it comes to it.

Get ready for 2011 to become the year of the 'IPv6 ready' sticker and fear not for the Internet.