Sky 'future proof' their internet with IPv6 rollout

6 September 2016   By Samantha Smith

SKY have become the UK's first major ISP to "complete" the rollout of the IPv6 addressing standard, having confirmed that more than 90% of their customers should now be using the new system.

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Several smaller ISPs have already adopted IPv6, including the likes of AAISP, IDNet, and Zen Internet.

Most customers won't notice any difference, but it's worth making a fuss about as it takes a serious amount of work to make IPv6 and IPv4 (the current address system) work together.

The ISP say that 95% of their services and routers are compatible with IPv6 - and that means the vast majority of users won't need to do anything.

Those who won't benefit from IPv6 just yet include people on Sky's out-of-area broadband (Sky Connect), those using Sky's very oldest routers (dating from when they first started to offer broadband back in 2006), and those using their own routers, which may or may not be IPv6 compliant.

What is IPv6 and why does it matter?

IP addresses: some examples
IPv4 address:
IPv6 address: 2001:ab01::ff00:2735:42

The Internet Protocol (IP) address is the internet equivalent of a phone number. Whenever we go online, our ISP assigns us an IP address in order for us to send and receive data from sites and servers.

It's not quite the same as a phone number: unless we've an ISP that offers us a static IP address, it's likely we'll have a different one each time we go online, and one IP address can be shared by many different users and devices.

The problem is, despite there being more than 4.29 billion IPv4 addresses, and despite the sharing mentioned above, we ran out of new addresses to assign around the middle of 2014.

IPv6 uses a different method to create the addresses we need, and with the number of combinations possible being in the billions of trillions, we shouldn't run out any time soon.

Moving from IPv4 to IPv6

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The problem is that the two systems don't work well together, and while some early adopters - like Netflix, for example - use both IPv6 and IPv4, most sites and services only use IPv4.

So while moving across to IPv6 is necessary and inevitable, early adopters like Sky (and BT, who are planning to roll it out over the coming months) have to ensure that connections using the IPv6 network can communicate with those on the IPv4 network, and vice versa.

Sky, and the various smaller ISPs that already offer IPv6, have done this by creating a "dual-stack network" that can process both IPv4 and IPv6 traffic, with Sky then assigning each IPv6-enabled customer a dynamic address with the prefix "/56".

This is the same approach BT are using in their rollout. Customers who have the newest of their Home Hubs (the BT Smart Hub) should find that they already have IPv6 capability; now BT have to start enabling users with their other Home Hubs - where possible.

A BT spokesperson told us that "all customers with the Home Hub 5" should be IPv6-enabled by early 2017.

Customers with our new Smart Hub have IPv6 capability immediately and we expect to have updated all customers with the Home Hub 5 early in 2017.
BT spokesperson

At a meeting of the UK IPv6 Council this time last year, BT said they were "looking into options" to enable the Home Hub 4 - but they're not commenting on whether or not it'll be included in this autumn's rollout.

That shouldn't really matter for now, however, and BT made a point of reminding us that "all customers can currently experience everything the internet can offer with IPv4".

When will we have to switch?

Check your IP address

It's issues of equipment compatibility, and the fact that so much of the internet uses IPv4, that mean that early adopters among the ISPs will be using dual-stack networks, or some other method for translating from one system to the other, for some time to come.

Indeed, Virgin Media told us that they plan to adopt IPv6 "by the middle of 2017" - but their deployment will depend on "the wider adoption of websites", and that they're aiming to manage their transition to match the uptake of IPv6 across the internet.

At some point, of course, there'll be no choice about it: sites will have to start using IPv6, and providers will have to ensure that their customers can access those sites.

For now though, Sky can rightly feel rather smug about becoming the first of the UK's major ISPs to get as many of their users ready for that future as possible.

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