2011 – Year of IPv6. Providing you’re not British.

As my first post of 2011, it was a toss-up between this and my annual mortgage statement. This won by virtue of annoying me more.

Right so what’s IPv6 and why is it more annoying than a mortgage? IPv6 is sort of new, except that it’s not. It was first published in 1998 when it became obvious that the Internet was going to grow bigger than the current IPv4 standard could support. At the risk of getting technical, IPv4 uses 32bit addressing, that means 32 binary digits of 0 or 1. In human-speak, that’s over 4 trillion addresses and every device on the Internet needs a unique one. Sounds like a lot but in reality it doesn’t work quite like that because they’re issued to companies in chunks and the spare capacity within those chunks isn’t available to anyone else. The chunk issue isn’t going to go away, that’s just the nature of IP but IPv6 solves the problem by using 128bit addresses instead of 32bit. In human terms, that’s a really enormously huge number. Slightly more than 3 with 38 zeros after it. The “slightly more” I mention is actually bigger than the entire IPv4 address space, that’s how big we’re talking.

So IPv6 has been around for well over 10 years now and PC Operating Systems have natively supported it for almost as long. In fact all the building-blocks are in place and all that’s needed is some momentum. And now we have it. The doom-mongers who have been saying that IPv4 is full are finally going to be proved correct and the Internet will consequently cease to expand until something is done about it. So what needs to happen? Well for most of the world, nothing but a bit of user education on how to switch their PC’s to it. Unfortunately there are exceptions and yep, as usual the UK is in that category. British Telecom don’t support it.

That might sound like a good reason for switching to another ISP but we’re not talking about ISP level stuff here, the problem is that BT’s equipment in the exchanges doesn’t support it. The only way around that hurdle is to use one of the providers who install their own equipment into BT’s exchanges and for many of us, that’s not even an option. Even where it is an option, my Googling has failed to find providers that advertise native support for it. Except one. Andrews & Arnold have been the ISP of choice for geeks for a long time and they’ve managed to hack together a work-around to BT’s inability to get with the times. They’ve also done more to highlight the problem than anyone else, the catalyst being this letter sent to BT back in October 2008.

So aside from using Andrews & Arnold, it seems that the UK will drag its heals and fail to surf on the IPv6 wave of adoption. So I wonder how long the world will wait for us? Perhaps there are already cunning plans being drawn up in the top-floors of BT offices to turn this to their financial advantage. Just imagine if Facebook was no longer accessible. People would probably pay to get it back. Only speculation but until BT sees fit to make a statement about their roll-out plans, that’s all I’ve got to offer.

What actually prompted me to blow off steam about this issue now is that we’re approaching a special occasion in Internet terms. The 8th June 2011 is IPv6 day, on which a number of top content providers have agreed to switch on IPv6 as a means to draw attention to the problem. Will it shame BT into action? At the very least, lets hope it results in some kind of positive statement from them.

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