African governments must buy IP addresses before depletion

KAMPALA, UGANDA – As they grapple to build national data backbones with the imminent arrival of fiber optics, are African governments forgetting something?

According to an IT expert in Uganda, who requested anonymity, African governments are indeed forgetting a critical resource: IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) addresses.

IPv4, on which the Internet has been running for more than 20 years, is now reaching its design limits and will soon be replaced by IPv6, which will enable the global expansion of the Internet.

When this transition occurs, the expert explained, users who have not stockpiled IPv4 space will not be able to access a large part of the Internet until the number of IPv6 addresses increase, as the two versions are not compatible.

Only 18 per cent of the total IPv4 space remains available, and at the rate of current consumption, the resource is not expected to last beyond 2010 or 2011.

“Our government does not hold any resource, yet it is planning to roll out a national data backbone,” the expert noted at a preparatory meeting for the first East African Internet Governance Forum. “What will happen when the resource gets depleted? To achieve access, you need both the network and the IP addresses that will enable users to access the Internet.”

“As things stand today, with no policy or plan in place to purchase this resource, from a public sector stand point, there is a clear disconnect, and it needs to be addressed,” he warned.

The Ugandan government has already commenced training to prepare for the migration from IPv4 to IPv6, said Ambrose Ruyooka, acting commissioner of the Ministry of ICT. He did not say, however, if there are any plans to purchase IPv4 space.

Some of the known holders of IPv4 space in Africa include the governments of Egypt, South Africa and Rwanda, which recently purchased some 65,000 IP addresses.

While Africa contains 14 per cent the world’s population, its share of IPv4 space stands at two per cent, and much of this space is held by private operators.

The expert predicts that a black market will develop once the resource runs out, and the market’s law of supply and demand will inflate prices and leave many African countries with nothing.

“That is why African governments must come in to take a stake, by investing in the new and old resource, and hold it in trust for citizens to ensure stability when the transition happens,” he said. The expert compared the situation to Uganda’s current struggle over the .ug domain.

“At the moment, we are having this debate about who should control the .ug domain,” he said. “If no action is taken as far as IP resources are concerned, the same scenario is likely to play out when IPv4 gets used up.”