Back in the 1970s and 80s, an Internet standard communications protocol, IPv4 or Internet Protocol Version 4, was conceived to interconnect research universities and government facilities in the United States. IPv4 assigns each device connected to the Internet with its own unique identification number, known as an IP address, so that devices can find and communicate with one another. At the time, the quite large number of IP addresses that IPv4 provided for— 4.3 billion— seemed like an almost limitless number that would never run out.

Flash forward to today in which the world population surpasses 7 billion people and the Internet of Things, wearables, and other advances in technology— which all require that each device has its own IP address— and the pool of IP addresses has been exhausted.  Devices now sometimes share IP addresses, resulting in delays and difficulties in routing Internet traffic and limitng the growth of the Internet— particularly in emerging markets. Mobile technologies, which are particularly important to developing countries are held back because network providers cannot assign unique addresses to every mobile device.

This is where IPv6 comes in.  Not only does it substantially increase the number of addresses, but it also enables more efficient routing, more efficient use of modern hardware, and the ability to support modern networking concepts like mobility.  In July 2015, the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), the regional organization in charge of assigning IP addresses in North America, began wait-listing applicants because it has exhausted its supply of IP addresses under IPv4.  The Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Latin America regions ran out before that.
From IPv4 to IPv6
IP addresses are numerical identification codes assigned to any device connected to the Internet that provide a destination for information as it travels through the Internet. These addresses are assigned to all kinds of devices, including smartphones, tablets, PCs and servers.

Under the current protocol, Internet protocol version 4 (IPv4), addresses are designated by four series of numbers ranging from 0 to 255, like 69.171.224.0.  IPv6, on the other hand, consists of eight groups of both letters and numbers — like 2a03:2880:f022:6:face:b00c:0:2. It provides roughly 340 trillion trillion trillion (or 340-undecillion) unique combinations, an almost limitless number of addresses.

IPv6 is already installed in most devices, and most websites have made themselves accessible through IPv6.  However, service providers have been slow to adopt the new protocol. According to Google, only 21% of all Internet traffic in the U.S. uses IPv6, and the numbers are much lower worldwide.

This article originally appeared on The World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Roxanne Bauer is a consultant to the World Bank’s External and Corporate Relations, Operational Communications department (ECROC).

Image: People use computers at an Internet cafe in Changzhi. REUTERS/Stringer.