You aren't really on the Internet unless you have a fixed IP address. A proposed policy would spread the power of the Internet more broadly by granting blocks of IPv6 addresses to small non-profit networks.
The IPv4 address space--still in universal use--is essentially all spoken for. But IPv6 is a mostly green field, as well as a sustainable one because its size is almost too big for the human mind to grasp. There are many good reasons to move to IPv6, and now the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) may provide one more: addresses for small, local networks known as "community networks."
What is a community network? It might be a charitable organization bringing Internet access to a poor neighborhood, or a cooperative manned mostly by friends and neighbors to cover a rural area, or a commercial mom-and-pop ISP (yes, they still exist) that soldiers on with volunteer help.
ARIN's draft proposal, better known as 2008-3 (don't those Internet regulators love catchy names?), holds out the hope that such networks will get a large chunk of IPv6 addresses of their own. By ensuring them a public face, the policy would expand the number of servers on such networks and give their clients a voice in the world. Having a contiguous address range should also make administration easier for community networks.
Approval is by no means guaranteed, so my colleague Sascha Meinrath (who spent a good deal of time helping design the draft) asks people who like the proposal to drop a line to ARIN at email@example.com with a brief supportive statement.
The draft performs a balancing act, trying to define a community network with a view to offering addresses to worthy institutions while screening out random speculators as well as groups who are not operationally ready. The concern with rationing may seem overstressed, but it's the whole raison d'être for regional Internet registries such as ARIN, and I suppose some kind of procedure for handing out addresses has to be in place.
Another aspect of the long history of tight control over address space was the hierarchical responsibility for allocating addresses. Supposedly, as addresses filtered down from RIRs to lower levels, the address space would be subdivided in rational ways that would keep routing tables simple. Giving sets of addresses to small organizations will increase the size of routing tables, but this increase was always a well-known consequence of adopting IPv6.
Note that pricing is not discussed in this proposal; this seems to be an oddity of the policy-making boundaries within ARIN.
Jaded by the failure of IPv6 to be adopted over the past decade, Internet users may dismiss this proposal. But just because service providers have found clever ways to work around the shortage of fixed IP address doesn't mean these accommodations are better than giving people a real presence on the Internet through a fixed IP address.
Each work-around consists essentially in setting up a server with as set of fixed IP addresses to which individuals log in so they can indulge in whatever service the vendor offers. It's such a ubiquitous underpinning of Web 2.0 that we stop thinking about it.
The developers of the Opera browser proudly announced Open Unite this past June, promising to let individuals run services right from their browser. The implementation, however, involves connecting to a central server set up by Opera or another organization. This is the same basic strategy used by peer-to-peer file sharing networks and Skype, and leaves the same dependency on a single point of failure. (Remember when Skype went down for two days in 2007?)
And ultimately it's the same strategy employed by all the blogging sites and social networks, providing their clients with an Internet presence on the vendors' terms. There's enough freedom and innovation at this level to keep the public happy for quite a while, but I wager the Internet will look a lot different if everyone has a fixed address.
The old excuse that individuals need to hide behind a router to protect them against security attacks has worn thin, as services move into the cloud while fancy browser features permit attackers to reach past the defenses set up by proxies and firewalls.
Maybe, as critics of IPv6 claim, it tries to do too much and is designed to solve the problems that were current in the mid-1990s instead of problems we face now. No matter--it's a real technology that removes the scarcity from addressing, appears in every modern operating system, and is supported by lots of popular server software, such as Apache.
The federal stimulus package for broadband adoption explicity invites small community organizations to apply. There's national recognition that such organizations play an important role in filling the digital gap. And ARIN can do its part.