The Internet has (sort of) run out of space.
The regional organization tasked with assigning IP addresses in North America, the
American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), is now wait-listing all applicants because it has almost exhausted its supply of IP addresses under the current protocol.
IP addresses are the numerical labels that identify any device connected to the Internet. These addresses enable smartphones, tablets, PCs and servers to find and communicate with one another. Each IP address is a unique label that provides a destination for information as it travels through the Internet.
Under the current protocol, Internet protocol version 4 (IPv4), addresses are designated by four series of numbers ranging from 0 to 255, like 22.214.171.124. But this protocol has been in use since the early days of the Internet, and almost all of the 4.3 billion possible labels of IPv4 are already in use — meaning the Internet has essentially run out of real estate.
"Within three to four weeks, we will hit the point where there is no inventory," said John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN. The group announced the wait-list policy on Wednesday.
But this is more of a milestone for the Internet than a death sentence.
The imminent exhaustion of available of addresses under IPv4 was announced last year by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (
ICANN), the international organization that allocates addresses to regional registry groups like ARIN. And a new protocol that was developed in the 1990s, Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6), has already been deployed in response.
While the current protocol consists of only four groups of numbers, IPv6 consists of eight groups of both letters and numbers — like 2a03:2880:f022:6:face:b00c:0:2 (the IPv6 address for Facebook's servers). It provides roughly 340 trillion trillion trillion (or 340-undecillion) unique combinations, an almost limitless number of addresses.
"Realistically, IPv4 cannot provide the Internet that we need and that everyone wants to have," said Curran, who points to the fact that IPv4 could not even support a world where all 7 billion people had just one device. "We are currently engaged in an extremely large tech conversion effort on a global scale for the largest technological system on the planet."
The deployment of IPv6 means that almost anything on the planet could connect to the Internet, paving the way for smart appliances, fabrics and bigger smart grids. And according to Curran, the new protocol is not only faster and more direct, but consumers will barely notice the transition.
IPv6 is already installed in most devices, and most websites have made themselves accessible through IPv6, but service providers have been slow to adopt the new protocol. According to Google, which collects statistics about IPv6 adoption, only 21% of all Internet traffic in the U.S. uses IPv6 — and the numbers are even lower worldwide.
According to Curran, the Internet is undergoing a necessary evolution, and Internet service providers need to be prepared or the exponential growth of the information super highway will screech to a halt.