Why The Internet Is Running Out Of Addresses

It's been called the I-Pocalyspe. Some headlines have been equally ominous: Internet Officially Runs Out of Addresses; The End of the Internet As We Know It; The Web's Well Goes Dry. To decipher these headlines, host Melissa Block speaks to Stephen Shankland, a senior writer for CNET.com.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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BLOCK: It's been called the IPocalypse from headlines of an equally ominous "Internet Officially Runs Out of Addresses; The End of the Internet As We Know It; The Web's Well Goes Dry." To decipher those headlines, we've called on Stephen Shankland, a senior writer for CNET news. He joins us by Skype from his home outside London. Welcome, Stephen.

Mr. STEPHEN SHANKLAND (Senior Writer, CNET): Thank you.

BLOCK: Now, we're talking about these IP addresses that have run out. Why don't you remind us, first of all, what an IP address is and what it does?

Mr. SHANKLAND: An IP address stands for Internet protocol address. And every computer or any other kind of device that attaches to the Internet needs one. It's the address that you use to send email to somebody else. Each little packet of information gets labeled with that address. So, when you run out, then you have trouble because then you can't connect new devices to the Internet. That might be your smartphone or your just, you know, PC at home.

BLOCK: And we've reached that point now. Even though there were billions of IP addresses, we have now run out?

Mr. SHANKLAND: Yeah. With the current technology called IPV4, that's version 4, the central authorities only have 4.3 billion IPV4 addresses to hand out in the first place, and they just handed out the last one. Now, we haven't actually run out for the level for most folks.

Basically, what happened is it stopped raining and snowing in the mountains. But we're downstream - down the river, and we still have plenty of water right now. But, you know, at some point in the next year or two, the dry spell is going to come downstream and we're going to have a drought down where the regular folks are.

BLOCK: But here to help is IPV6, correct?

Mr. SHANKLAND: That's right. IPV6 has quite a lot more Internet addresses. Specifically, it has 340 trillion, trillion, trillion.

BLOCK: That is an amazing number. The number is 340 undecillion is the name. 340 with 36 zeroes after it. You figure that's enough to last for a while?

Mr. SHANKLAND: It's enough to last for a very long time, yes. The hard part is not counting that high, though. It's actually making the transition to that technology.

BLOCK: Yeah, well, what's involved in that transition?

Mr. SHANKLAND: For most people, it's not really going to be that big a deal. But if you have a website, it's going to be something you're going to have to deal with. And if you're an Internet service provider, you're going to have to deal with it. So, this is something that the IT people out there who run computers and computer systems, it's mostly their problem to deal with and they're going to be spending a lot of money over the next few years to make the transition to IPV6.

BLOCK: And as they spend money to make the transition, does that get passed on to consumers, to businesses, too?

Mr. SHANKLAND: Yes. As always, with new technology there's lots of exciting stuff that comes down the pike. But sooner or later, somebody pays for it. Hopefully, you know, big profitable companies are doing the transition. They can absorb the costs. But, you know, sooner or later, if your ISP has to spend a lot of money upgrading a whole lot of servers and other Internet equipment, then, yeah, that cost will get passed along down to the customer.

BLOCK: So, the transition from IPV4 to IPV6, are you anticipating that that will be pretty smooth or are there lots of potential complications there?

Mr. SHANKLAND: I think it's going to be more in the area of hiccups and some unpleasantness, than catastrophe. That's why I think the word IPocalypse is a bit overblown. A lot of money is going to have to be spent, but I don't think the Internet is going to come to a screeching halt, for example.

Websites will get slow in some cases because when you're trying to get data from some server on the other side of the Internet, the data might have to get translated from IPV4 to IPV6 and then back to IPV4. That has to happen every time a little packet of information goes from one place to another.

So I think we'll see some delays in the performance of the Internet as we make this gradual transition from IPV4 to IPV6.

BLOCK: OK. Stephen Shankland, the senior writer for CNET news. Stephen, thanks very much.

Mr. SHANKLAND: Yeah. Glad to help.

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