The Hidden Standards War: Economic Factors Affecting IPv6 Deployment

The data communications protocol supporting the Internet (IPv4) is almost 40 years old, and its 32-bit address space is too small for the global Internet. A new, “next generation” Internet Protocol (IPv6), has a much larger, 128 bit address space. But the new protocol is not backwards compatible with the existing Internet. For the past 20 years, the Internet technical community has been trying to migrate the entire Internet to the new standard.

This study addresses important but often overlooked questions about the technical evolution of the Internet: Will the world converge on IPv6? Will IPv6 die out? Or will we live in a mixed world for the foreseeable future?

The research offers a clear-eyed, economically-grounded study of IPv6’s progress and prospects. Many promoters of IPv6 sincerely believe that the new standard must succeed if the Internet is to grow, and assume that the transition is inevitable because of the presumed depletion of the IPv4 address resources. However, by examining the associated network effects, developing the economic parameters for transition, and modeling the underlying economic forces which impact network operator decisions, the study paints a more complex, nuanced picture. The report concludes that legacy IPv4 will coexist with IPv6 indefinitely. A variety of conversion technologies, and more efficient use of IPv4 addresses using NAT, will support a “mixed world” of the two standards for the foreseeable future.

The study’s authors, Dr. Brenden Kuerbis and Dr. Milton Mueller, are with the Internet Governance Project (IGP) in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. Their independent research was supported in part by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer.