ICANN’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) has published a useful paper on the so-called “New IP” coined by Huawei technologists. So-called New IP’s link to Huawei is a guarantee, in the current geopolitical environment, that it will be politicized. The “ITU is taking over the Internet” narrative that prevailed in the U.S. from, roughly, 2000 to 2016, has now been supplanted by “the Chinese are taking over the Internet” scenarios, often tied to extraordinary claims that Chinese equipment, services or standards somehow embed or export Communist Party control.

For anyone looking for a sane and sober understanding of what is really going on with so-called New IP, the OCTO paper is a good start.

We insist on adding “so-called” to “New IP” because, as the OCTO paper confirms, it is not really a defined protocol proposal, much less an alternative standard. Huawei, like any growing and ambitious vendor, would like to pioneer new capabilities and be a standard-setter rather than a standard-taker. But the path to a new global standard is by no means being paved by “New IP.” In its poorly-defined concepts lurk a number of unresolved technical issues, and Huawei itself is backing off from presenting it as a replacement for IPv4 or IPv6.

Origins of New IP

The OCTO report does a good job of situating the New IP concept in its proper institutional context. A Focus Group of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was formed in 2018 called “Network 2030.” ITU Focus Groups are less formal, shorter-term entities “used to address industry needs as they emerge.” Network 2030 was created by members of the ITU-T Study Group 13, which leads ITU’s standardization work on next-generation networks. It was authorized “to carry out a broad analysis for future networks towards 2030 and beyond.” It was what we might call a “blue sky” committee.

Network 2030 spent 2 years identifying futuristic use cases (e.g., holographic communication) and the requirements that might be needed to provide them. Section 3.3.2 of the OCTO report directly and honestly identifies the problems with the current Internet Protocol that the New IP promoters believe need to be addressed if we are to realize those new capabilities. Huawei agents were the leaders of this process, and probably would have liked for those futuristic capabilities to set the stage for a new, Huawei-led protocol suite to implement them. But the linkage between the Network 2030 focus Group and New IP is loose. The Chair of ITU Study Group 13 said “New IP is not a deliverable of Focus Group Network 2030 studies, but might supply solutions for scenarios considered by the Focus Group.”

So, does a New IP actually exist?

In a word, no. The OCTO report correctly states that there is:

“confusion about “New IP’s” relationship with Network 2030, and about what New IP technically is. To date, it has been impossible to determine whether New IP is meant for deployment in specific verticals or is intended to be a full-blown replacement of the existing IPv4 and/or IPv6.”

The report also notes that

It is difficult to see New IP as a candidate for a protocol standard. Rather, it appears to be a list of perceived issues about the current Internet architecture and a list of desired features.

Indeed, Huawei itself seems to have backed off from the bolder notion of a New IP. In IGP’s interview with Richard Li, one of the leaders of the initiative, he focused on what he called “industrial internet.” Huawei now refers to “Future Vertical Communication Networks & Protocols” (FVCNP), which the OCTO report says is essentially a “rebranding” of New IP. This suggests that Huawei has realized that the New IP label was both a bit misleading and a public relations disaster.

Technical issues

The OCTO report also levels some hard-core technical criticism of some of the “desired features” contained in the Huawei proposals. The report contains an analysis of issues associated with deviating from existing IP’s best effort approach and trying to guarantee minimum and maximum bounded latency, or bandwidth reservation. The report also makes interesting critiques of various deviations from the end-to-end argument. But ultimately, the acceptance or rejection of radical changes in IP will rest on economic factors and industry cooperation constraints as much as technology per se. The OCTO report also raises serious questions about whether variable-length addressing will work and can make a New IP compatible with the old IP protocols.

The report authors take issue with Huawei’s belief that “The network needs to provide specific QoS and security policies based on user identity.” They note that how this would be achieved is unspecified, and show that binding user identity to a New IP address could have far reaching consequences for the privacy of Internet communications.

Keep the Door Open

Despite all these problems, there is one more or less implicit – and appealing – critique of the established Internet institutions that Huawei’s initiative makes. And that is that we are so locked into the current standards ecosystem that only incremental tinkering is possible. There is no vehicle for major, qualitative improvements in Internet standards. With its roots in telecommunications, Huawei contrasts the quantum leaps in different generations of mobile telecommunications standards – 3G, LTE, 5G – with the incremental changes taking place in internet standards. This is a concern that needs to be taken seriously.

Nothing in the current Internet standards ecosystem allows for radical, revolutionary change. The Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), to put it bluntly, is not a serious player. Currently it is consumed with things like ferreting out language that might be construed as racist rather than fundamental advances in technical architecture. Indeed, lots of things about the Internet community militate against disruptive change. That can be a strength of the existing internet, as it fosters stability and compatibility, but in the long term it can also be a vulnerability. Even if most of the new ideas Huawei is proposing are unlikely to succeed, it is possible that at some point a radical new technology from outside IETF and the I*s will come along and, free of the baggage of the past, disrupt or replace the status quo. IETF and the Internet community should do all they can do incorporate innovators, upstarts and new ideas.