At ARIN, yet another intense controversy is swirling around the problem of IPv4 address transfers. Numerous analysts have warned for more than three years that we are running out of IPv4 addresses. And we seem to be running out of them faster than we are making the transition to IPv6. Papers by IGP and others have proposed markets for IPv4 addresses as a transitional mechanism to encourage underutilized or unused address resources to be moved to organizations that value them more highly. However, among some Internet traditionalists there is deep resistance to any change in “need-based” resource allocation methods and to the idea of a market for addresses.

Thus, while the European region has moved ahead with transfers, the ARIN region — where most of the fallow address space lies — has been stuck in the mud, bogged down by endless debates between advocates of relaxed transfer policies and vocal, intransigent opponents. Seeking a middle ground, ARIN’s Advisory Council developed conservative plans to maintain ARIN as a middleman that assesses organizations’ “need” for addresses while allowing money to change hands between those releasing addresses and those gaining them. After nearly a year, it seemed as if “Draft Policy 2008-6: Emergency Transfer Policy for IPv4 Addresses” had gained acquiescence, if not actual consensus. Noting that the ARIN Advisory Council had recommended it and that the Policy Development Process had been followed, the ARIN Board of Trustees actually adopted Draft Policy 2008-6 at its 6 February 2009 meeting (sort of). So the battle was over, right? Wrong.

At its 18 March 2009 meeting, the Board declared an emergency and revised both the existing transfer policy and the policy it had just adopted a month earlier. The new draft policy, 2009-1, proposed major changes in 2008-6. One of those changes was the elimination of a 3-year sunset clause in the original policy (but that was not the real issue; see below). The Board's decision, which is subject to 10 business days of discussion and review on the ARIN Public Policy Mailing list, was not well explained, which provoked complaints. Discussion ends 7 April 2009.

Initially, there was very little information about what prompted the Board's action. 2008-6 did permit transfers, so the abrupt decision to modify it shocked many people involved. From a policy substance point of view, however, the incident had all the earmarks of people waking up and smelling the coffee. As people as politically diverse as myself, Randy Bush and Geoff Huston have warned repeatedly, failure to create a legitimate market for address transfers in an environment of growing scarcity risks fomenting an underground market.

Just today, the Board released a statement that clarified what the problem with 2008-6 was. (This reason was accurately predicted by yours truly on the ARIN list a couple of days ago). The fatal flaw in Draft Policy 2008-6 was that no transfers could begin until the exhaustion of the IANA free pool; i.e., two years or so down the road. Not permitting transfers until we are on the brink of total address exhaustion would have been a huge mistake, a game of chicken with the Internet's future. If scarcity means “people have strong incentives to conserve their IPv4 addresses and to plan concrete measures to acquire more before it runs out, scarcity is here now, especially when there are live proposals to ration the remaining IPv4 blocks in small parcels. (See Draft Policy 2009-2) Policy 2009-2 would limit large operators to dribs and drabs of additional address blocks in order to equalize their ration with small operators. If I were a big operator looking ahead for the next 2-3 years, and worried about my ability to reliably acquire the v4 addresses needed to grow and remain competitive, the combination of 2008-6 (which doesn't allow transfers at all until the exhaustion of the free pool), and the rationing approach of 2009-2 (which if adopted would go into effect when ARIN's reserve of unallocated IPv4 address space drops below an equivalent /9) I would be concerned.

So it is not too imaginative to suggest that after adopting 2008-6 the ARIN Board got an earful from one (or two, or three) major Internet service providers, who felt that they had an emergency to deal with. And if one or two of those major providers informed the Board that they might dip into a gray market to get the IPv4 addresses they needed, that certainly would, in the Board's opinion, constitute an emergency that would threaten the foundations of their administration of the address space.

As the Board wrote in its clarification statement, issued just minutes before this post was made, “The sense of the Board is that a transfer policy is needed well before IANA’s last IPv4 allocation, to allow early transfers and ease the demand for IPv4 numbers from ARIN. Allowing for the possibility that demand might increase as IANA allocates its last IPv4 numbers, the Board believes that there is insufficient time for another full policy cycle.”