Verizon appears to be playing catch-up to broadband rival Comcast with its announcement Tuesday of a residential trial of IPv6, a long-anticipated upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol.
Verizon is testing IPv6 on its all-fiber FiOS network for a month. The trial involves a dozen Verizon employees, who all live in Northern Virginia.
"For FiOS, it's the first [time] we are actually working with IPv6 in the production network," says Jean McManus, executive director of packet network technology for Verizon. She added that Verizon has been experimenting with IPv6 in its lab.
Verizon is running IPv6 on one of its FiOS network edge routers in dual-stack mode, which means IPv6 is running side-by-side with IPv4, the current version of the Internet Protocol. The Reston, Va.-based router involved in the trial is supporting hundreds of FiOS customers with regular IPv4 services at the same time it is supporting a dozen Verizon employees with IPv6 services.
Verizon is using commercially available customer premises equipment from an unnamed vendor in its IPv6 trial. The FiOS network edge router is tunneling the IPv6 traffic inside IPv4 packets for transport over Verizon's Multi MPLS backbone to IPv6-capable peering connections with other carriers.
McManus said it's possible that Verizon would conduct a second trial of IPv6 on the FiOS network depending on the results of this initial test.
"We have thousands of routers, and we can't cut them over instantaneously," McManus says. "The key is when our vendors that are embedded are going to be ready and to what extent do we need to upgrade software or hardware."
Verizon's announcement follows that of Comcast, which was the first broadband ISP in the United States to announce a series of public trials of IPv6 back in January. More than 5,500 residential and commercial Comcast customers across the United States have signed up for Comcast's IPv6 trial.
Comcast is testing several different mechanisms for transitioning from IPv4 to IPv6, including dual-stack mode, a tunneling mechanism known as 6rd, and a scheme for sharing IPv4 addresses among multiple customers known as Dual-Stack Lite.Comcast and Verizon are experimenting with IPv6 because IPv4 is running out of address space. IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion devices connected directly to the Internet. IPv6, on the other hand, uses 128-bit addresses and supports a virtually unlimited number of devices.
Experts predict that the remaining IPv4 addresses will be distributed in 2012. In January, the Regional Internet Registries announced that fewer than 10% of IPv4 addresses remain unallocated.
Melanie Posey, research director for Telecom Markets at IDC, said neither the Verizon nor the Comcast IPv6 trials are that big compared to the production-quality IPv6 services available from carriers in Asia and Europe.
"Compared to what NTT is doing in Japan, nobody in the United States is doing much of anything," Posey says. "My view is that IPv6 is just another front for attempted differentiation for these guys."
Verizon is targeting 2011 for offering a commercial IPv6 service for its FiOS customers.
Verizon Wireless said last year that all device makers that want to support its Long Term Evolution (LTE) network must support IPv6.
"Verizon Wireless is moving aggressively with IPv6 for LTE devices. With FiOS, we're probably burning through IPv4 addresses at the second-fastest rate," McManus says. "2011 is a good date to go with for when we think we need to roll out IPv6 services. We're also continuing to look at other strategies such as carrier-grade [network address translation] as an interim step that may play into our strategy depending on how fast we have to cut over to IPv6."
Verizon set up an internal IPv6 task force last year to consider how best to upgrade its networks to IPv6.
"We really need to understand if we are going to break applications and if we are going to enable applications," McManus says. "We're trying to figure out what are the next wave of applications that are going to come in and take advantage of IPv6 once you get rid of NAT on the CPE."
She says Verizon has much work to do to get its troubleshooting tools, back office and router provisioning systems ready for IPv6.
Over the next year, "you'll see more and more announcements from Verizon about upgrades to ready the network for IPv6 and ultimately, whether it's residential or enterprise or wireless, you'll see our customers are getting IPv6 in production mode, not just a trial," McManus says. "I think you'll see the momentum increasing."
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