Experts on Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6) believe states aren’t reacting urgently enough to last week’s announcement that all version 4 (IPv4) addresses have been distributed. Because of this, existing websites will need to be modified to accept IPv6 or risk compatibility issues.

“It just isn’t No. 1 on the radar scope — good or bad, it just isn’t,” said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute (PTI), a nonprofit that focuses on using IT to improve government services.

IP addresses are the numeric identifiers that are assigned to every device connected to the Internet. Last week, The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) announced that it had distributed the last set of IPv4 addresses.

With the exhaustion of IPv4, the entire Internet needs to be upgraded to make all devices — including websites, smartphones, routers and networked gaming consoles — compatible for those who will be receiving IPv6 addresses from Internet service providers.

The fear is that if states — or any organization or agency — do not upgrade network infrastructure to support IPv6, then some people will have trouble signing onto public websites. “If we have people who are being driven to our city, county and state websites, it could mean that somebody isn’t getting through,” said Shark.

In September 2010 U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra announced a two-year plan to upgrade all federal government websites to support IPv6. So far, state governments have no such plan in place, and only a few states have begun preparing for IPv6 implementation. The lackluster reaction, experts agree, could be occurring because states aren’t even aware of the issue.

Some observers are comparing this IP conversion to Y2K, the worldwide scare that there would be a massive computer failure when the calendar rolled over into 2000. Since the vast majority of failures never materialized (due to the years spent rewriting code, many argue), some experts think state governments don’t believe that anything will happen this time around either. Another factor could be that most states have an abundance of IPv4 addresses in their possession that haven’t been used yet. Because inventory remains high, there doesn’t appear to be cause for concern.

IPv4 uses four 8-bit-number (32-bit total) addresses, which limits the address space to nearly 4.3 billion unique addresses, according to CNET. IPv6, the new system, “will open up a pool of Internet addresses that is a billion-trillion times larger than the total pool of IPv4 addresses,” according to Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), one of the nonprofits that coordinates IP distribution, “which means the number of IPv6 addresses is virtually inexhaustible for the foreseeable future.” IPv6 uses four 32-bit numbers, or 128 bits total.

Like the Y2K scare, the IPv4 depletion is no surprise to Internet service providers, who have been planning for this for more than a decade.

John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN, another group that distributes IP addresses, warned attendees at last year’s National Association of State Technology Directors conference that states are not taking the IP conversion seriously and it will backfire when citizens can’t access the government websites.

ARIN has been warning the public about the importance of the conversion. Last year, the organization sent out letters to every person in its database who has requested an IP address in the past.

A few states are actively working on IPv6. One state is known to have requested its IPv6 address space from ARIN about a year and a half ago, and has been planning its deployment strategy for the past six months. The state is in talks with a vendor to help with the conversion, which is expected to take about nine months. Part of the process involves implementing a dual-stack service, where IPv4 and IPv6 operate side by side, so either a legacy IPv4 user or a new IPv6 user can use the same application.

However, Shark said many state governments will have to replace old infrastructure that doesn’t have the capacity to run a dual-stack.

“We’ve been forced to cut corners because we put off refreshing the equipment more often to satisfy across-the-board budget cuts. At some point we’ll pay the price for some of those cuts,” he said.

PTI will be hosting webinars and publishing white papers on the topic to further encourage states to make the switch to IPv6.

As of right now, are states ready? “My sense is, I don’t think so,” Shark said.

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer