Internet Protocol version 6, otherwise known as IPv6, launches today, opening a way to for all of us to keep connecting a wider range of ever-more esoteric devices to the Internet.
Why IPv6 is important to you
Without IPv6, we would soon hit the upper limit of connectable devices. IPv4, the current standard, offers only 4.3 billion addresses and they're getting gobbled up. As my colleague Stephen Shankland notes, it's a real problem for businesses that want to set up new Internet services or for carriers that want to sell another few million smartphones.
If the businesses that build our Internet-connected phones, thermostats, and backpacks can't connect to the Internet, then they're out of business, you're out of tech gizmos, and I'm probably out of a job.
There's no crushing urgency to adopt IPv6 as soon as possible. Nevertheless, it's already begun to change how the Internet works.
How do I find out if my ISP is offering IPv6 service?
You can certainly shoot an e-mail off to your current Internet Service Provider and ask them if IPv6 is currently being offered, but it's much easier to just go to Test-IPv6.com. The site will quickly run some tests on your connection, and let you know how it stacks up. It'll tell you what your IPv4 address is; if you have an IPv6 address, and what it is if it's available; how your current browser and computer stack up at your current location; and what your IPv6 status means for your browsing.
It's a good idea to go the site first, and then contact your ISP if you have further questions. My current ISP is Comcast, which has a dedicated site for IPv6 questions.
What do I need to change to get IPv6?
Theoretically, you'll have to check your modem, router, operating system, and software. The reality isn't quite so daunting, though.
The aforementioned Test-IPv6.com will let you know your modem and router status. If your modem is supplied by your ISP, it's the ISP's responsibility to make sure that the modem is IPv6 compatible. If you use a third-party modem, like the one I just bought, the burden falls on you.
Erik Kline, a member of Google's IPv6 team in charge of getting their apps IPv6-enabled, agreed with that analysis during a Google+ conversation with CNET. "I think the number one thing that end users can do is (1) contact their ISP and ask when they will start supporting IPv6, and (2) ask them for a list of IPv6-capable home networking gear they've tested (in some cases users may need both a new home gateway and a new modem device, e.g. DOCSIS 3.0,)" he wrote.
DOCSIS 3.0 is the third iteration of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, which allows high-speed data transfer over your cable TV wires. You can upgrade the firmware on some older modems, though it depends on the manufacturer.
The vast majority of programs support IPv6 already, including the five major Web browsers. Wikipedia has a lengthy list of supported software you can peruse.
How do I get IPv6 addresses for my devices?
Neil Cook, the Chief Technology Officer for CloudMark, a company that helps service providers prepare for IPv6, said in a phone conversation that addressing for IPv6 is easier than with IPv4. "You don't need the same infrastructure to assign IPv6 addresses as you do for IPv4. If you've got IPv6 capable network infrastructure, and you've got a device that uses it, it should already have an IPv6 address. It should all just work."
That may not matter so much right now, since most people aren't going to have full "end-to-end" IPv6 connections for some time. "You're pretty much guaranteed that at some point, your packets will be transferred over IPv4," Cook said. There's value in making your devices individually addressed under IPv6, if you're on a complete IPv6 connection. But for the average consumer, there's no benefit yet, he said.
Is IPv6 secure?
What about security? According to Cook, IPv6 was designed to be more secure than IPv4. But it wasn't hard. "IPv4... was designed with no security in mind. [IPv6] is certainly no less secure, and a bit more secure at the network level."
What happens if I do nothing?
At this point, it appears that doing nothing about IPv6 isn't just a perfectly acceptable option for most people, it's going to be the reaction of the majority. And that's okay.
"Most of the Internet will take years to migrate," Cook explained. "IPv6 is a best effort at the moment. If you can access it, that's great, but if not it'll fallback to IPv4. For most consumers, doing nothing right now is not a problem."