Will China’s single stack IPv6 plans give it an unassailable tech lead?

China’s authorities are pushing to speed up nationwide IPv6 rollout and have a single-stack network running by 2023. At the moment, it is the only country advocating for a single-stack IPv6 network. Could this be a much-needed stimulus for other countries to boost their IPv6 efforts?

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China has opened up a new front in its ongoing cold war with the US, and signalled its intent to be the world’s pre-eminent technology superpower. This time, the unlikely battleground is next-gen internet protocol, IPv6, which Beijing wants to support its entire national internet infrastructure in less than a decade. Experts believe the move will enable the country to expand its leadership in 5G and IoT across a range of industries.

The question is, will it spur other countries, particularly the US, to follow suit?

What’s going on?

IPv6 has been around for some time. It was created back in 1998 to head-off concerns that the world was running out of IP address space. While IPv4 uses a 32-bit scheme to support around four billion devices, the advent of the IoT and explosion in smartphone use meant a new system was needed. IPv6 uses a 128-bit address scheme to support an almost unlimited (hundreds and hundreds of trillions) number. However, adoption has been slow despite the many benefits of the new protocol because technologies like network address translation (NAT) effectively extended the lifespan of IPv4. The latest stats suggest only around a third of Google users are on IPv6.

However, China has other ideas. In July its Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission and Cyberspace Administration announced ambitious plans to migrate completely off IPv4 by around 2030. Having already overtaken India as the country with the most IPv6 addresses in May this year, with 528 million, it wants to reach 800 million by 2025, with 70% of all mobile traffic running over the new protocol. Half of all home routers, all government sites, and 20% of urban network traffic are slated to use IPv6 by then.

As befitting a one-party state, significant resources, and political pressure, will be brought to bear to make these plans a reality. In April, China opened the Future Internet Test Infrastructure (FITI), what has been described as the world’s largest internet testing facility. It features 31 provincial-level backbone core nodes supporting 200Gbps links between each and over 4,000 large-scale trial networks.

Deeping China’s tech dominance

So why the big push? And why now? Jingoistic domestic media describes the initiative in terms of freeing China from the yoke of US control in the form of IPv4, as well as of creating a more secure and stable internet and driving global 5G leadership through support for AI, autonomous driving and other use cases.

Although claims that China is somehow “at the mercy” of the US if it continues with IPv4 are wide of the mark, the other stated benefits of the new protocol stack up, says Viktorija Ratomske, IPv6 expert at London-headquartered IPXO.

“IPv6 exceeds IPv4 in complexity and efficiency, allowing smoother overall network connectivity and simpler network management. It also enables much greater connection speeds, as IPv6 traffic doesn’t need to pass through carrier NAT systems,” she tells me.

“Furthermore, unlike IPv4, the new protocol has an integrated IPsec feature. Therefore, it is considered much safer and can run end-to-end encryption. That prevents third parties from gathering data, resulting in an overall more secure network for the entire country.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage for China lies with IPv6’s support for emerging technologies like 5G and IoT.

“Each device needs an IP address to connect to the internet, but IPv4 cannot accommodate the rapid growth of new-age tech. Thus, deploying a single-stack IPv6 network would bring China much closer to the future of autonomous vehicles, smart cities, IoT, and remote robotics,” argues Ratomske. “Countrywide IPv6 deployment would for sure give it the upper hand—they’d have tools and knowledge to better utilise and employ next-gen technology, making them a dominant force in the industry.”

Taking China’s lead?

The question is whether China’s new plans will wake other countries out of their IPv6 slumber. There are several factors which suggest they may struggle to emulate its single-stack plans, even if the political will were there. As a one-party state, China can marshal significant resources to upgrade core routers, switches, and home users’ routers, and its strict regulation of the telecoms sector leaves little room for industry push back. The fact that most Chinese internet users are already constrained in terms of which IP addresses outside the country they can visit will also help the switchover, says Ratomske.

“For other countries to accomplish such a goal in an expedited timeframe would be nearly impossible,” she concludes. “Most countries lack concrete strategies that would help move the idea forward. But this could act as a push for governments to revisit the topic, evaluate what’s been done so far, and how they could strengthen their IPv6 efforts.”

Having already ceded much of the standards setting leadership to China on 5G, and seen deployment of the next-gen technology stumble after security concerns over Huawei infrastructure, there’s a growing sense of urgency that Western nations get their act together over IPv6. A recent summit of Quad nations (the US, India, Japan and Australia) saw new commitments to work closer together on critical and emerging technologies. But while these are to be welcomed, they must come alongside more proactive steps to build out the internet infrastructure on which many of these new systems will work.