The Obama Administration bills itself as the most tech-savvy political team ever, but until now it has ignored one of the biggest issues facing the Internet: the rapid depletion of Internet addresses using the current protocol, known as IPv4, and the imminent need for carriers and content providers to adopt a new standard called IPv6.
Today, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will host a workshop on IPv6 that features high-profile executives from government, industry and Internet policymaking organizations.
This workshop is the first time the Obama Administration has given IPv6 any publicity in the 21 months it has been in office. Indeed, government insiders say Federal CIO Vivek Kundra didn't ask them about agencies' progress on IPv6 until last week, when he began preparing for NTIA's workshop.
IPv6 is the biggest upgrade in the 40-year history of the Internet. Forward-looking carriers and enterprises are deploying IPv6 because the Internet is running out of IP addresses using the current standard, known as IPv4.
IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion devices connected directly to the Internet. IPv6, on the other hand, uses 128-bit addresses and supports a virtually unlimited number of devices - 2 to the 128th power.
About 94.5% of IPv4 address space has been allocated as of 3 September, 2010, according to the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which delegates blocks of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses to carriers and enterprises in North America. Experts say IPv4 addresses could run out as early as December but will certainly be gone by the end of 2011.
The Obama Administration's silence on IPv6 has stood in stark contrast to the Bush Administration, which was aggressive in setting IPv6-related goals during its tenure.
In 2005, the Bush Administration's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) established and ultimately met a deadline of June 30, 2008 for all federal agencies to demonstrate IPv6 capabilities on their backbone networks.
The Bush Administration also created an IPv6 testing and certification process for IT products that is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Also in 2005, Bush officials proposed a change to the Federal Acquisition Regulations that requires agencies to purchase IPv6-enabled hardware and software; the law went into effect July 2010.
An NTIA official said the Commerce Department agency has been working behind the scenes with Internet policymaking and technical bodies regarding IPv4 depletion and the need to deploy IPv6. The IPv6 workshop is the first chance the agency has had to raise the visibility of the issue within the Obama Administration and across US industry overall.
"This is a critical issue, with the depletion of IPv4 addresses expected at the end of 2011," the NTIA official added. "NTIA, the Federal IPv6 task force, OMB and NIST have been working behind the scenes and keeping IPv6 on the radar screen. But we wanted to push this up to the higher levels and get a higher focus on this for all industry and government stakeholders."
Industry executives involved in the IPv6 workshop were unwilling to criticize Kundra or Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra for their delayed interest in IPv6. Instead, they expressed satisfaction that the Obama Administration is finally giving the issue visibility.
"What I found striking is that both the US CIO and CTO are together on the same day, on two back-to-back panels, addressing IPv6," said Ram Mohan, executive vice president with Afilias, a registry that operates .info and a dozen other Internet domains, and a panelist at the NTIA IPv6 workshop. "It's fabulous in terms of spurring adoption and in terms of shining a spotlight on this issue."
"If you look at the 10 or 15 ways that the government may influence change and evolution on the Internet, the two places they can do it best is by voting with their dollars and by articulating and building awareness about the need for change, which is what this workshop is aimed at," said Danny McPherson, vice president for research and development at VeriSign, who is giving a keynote address at the IPv6 workshop.
"This workshop shows the realization that everyone has got to accept this and to move forward with the coexistence of IPv4 and IPv6 and to understand what that means for their operational, budgeting and development time frames," McPherson added.
The workshop will feature two panels: one focused on industry issues and the other on government issues. Speakers on the industry panel include: Vint Cerf, one of the co-designers of the Internet's foundational protocol, TCP/IP, and now a Google executive; as well as representatives from US companies such as Comcast, Verizon and Akamai that are leading the charge toward IPv6.
"The main point of the industry panel is to raise the visibility of IPv6 to service providers as an important issue for them for the continuation of their businesses and the importance of it in being able to keep the Internet running in America," said John Curran, CEO of ARIN and one of the panelists. "Some of the largest players are moving in this direction. The federal government is moving in this direction, and it's important to the nation as a whole to move in this direction."
Curran says it's surprising how many carriers, hosting companies and content providers have yet to announce their IPv6 plans. He's hoping that NTIA's IPv6 workshop will prompt them to commit to a product road map for IPv6.
"One would hope that if you're a service provider of any form – transit, hosting or content distribution—that you've heard about IPv6 and are planning for it," Curran says. "You'd be amazed at how many still don't have a firm plan or are still thinking this is a hypothetical situation."
The government panel will feature representatives of the federal IPv6 task force, NIST and the US Defense Department, which is interested in IPv6 to support sensor networks and emerging mobility applications.
The government panel is expected to discuss the progress agencies are making at adopting IPv6 and following an IPv6 road map that was released last year by the Federal CIO Council.
"As far as IPv6 goes, this administration has been silent. They've just assumed that agencies have been progressing in their tech refresh," said one federal IT executive. "That's a great assumption, but nobody has done a survey or a report card to see how we are doing against our road map….I'm hoping this administration will re-emphasize the importance of IPv6 and make a strategic commitment to it."