IPv6 is the latest version of the fundamental technology (Internet Protocol) that powers the Internet. The previous version, IPv4, is still in operation on many networks around the world but it can only support an Internet of a few billion devices. By contrast, IPv6 can support an Internet of billions of billions of devices and can provide enough address space to meet the needs of the growing Internet for decades to come. Simply put, the Internet has outgrown its original design and IPv6 is the solution.
Saudi Arabia has been a hotspot for IPv6 deployment for several months now. We recently caught up with the local regulatory authority, Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), and the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) to understand what’s been happening in their country to cause this strong growth in IPv6 usage.
For the Saudi CITC, the focus on IPv6 deployment began over 14 years ago when they formed an IPv6 Taskforce. This body, which included all local service providers plus other key institutions, began to develop their IPv6 adoption strategy. Initially they focused on the capability of the core network, services to support IPv6, building awareness of the importance of IPv6 and the necessary technical capacity.
In coordination with the Regional Internet Registry (RIR) for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, RIPE NCC, regular IPv6 training sessions were conducted and over 500 engineers in both the private and public sectors have been trained in IPv6 deployment and operations so far.
Fast forward to 2010 and all the core networks for service providers were fully supporting IPv6, including the .sa ccTLD. The next challenge to overcome was enabling IPv6 services for Saudi end users. CITC worked directly with some organizations to help them enable IPv6 for their public-facing services, which helped to stimulate demand. This also helped CITC to publish guidance to support both private and government bodies in deploying IPv6. From 2015, some service providers started to enable IPv6 on their fixed network initiated by Saudi Telecom Company (STC) followed by ITC and other service providers at the beginning of 2020.
By 2018 it was becoming clear that despite these efforts, Saudi Arabia was falling behind in comparison to the global average of IPv6 adoption which, at that time, was around 20%. The Saudi IPv6 Taskforce refocused and redoubled their efforts to bring in service providers as core participants with more regular meetings and IPv6 adoption progress reporting.
Persuading service provider management of the need to make further investments to enable more widespread IPv6 adoption was a challenge as the business case was not clear to them. In addition, most Saudi Internet users are mobile subscribers and enabling IPv6 on mobile networks was more complicated, particularly because some key players (e.g. handset manufacturers) were more autonomous in their actions.
Demonstrations of the importance of IPv6 adoption for the emergence of 5G cellular networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) helped to raise awareness among service provider decision-makers. Reports about the centrality of IPv6 to both 5G and IoT were influential in helping to support approved business cases for investment.
Since 2019, regular Key Performance Indicator (KPI) reporting has been adopted to track and maintain IPv6 deployment efforts. These KPIs are regularly reviewed to ensure continued alignment with worldwide IPv6 adoption rates and best practices. This reporting has helped to further stimulate new IPv6 deployment projects and initiatives.
CITC and RIPE NCC partnered in these efforts, helping to connect Saudi operators with case studies of mobile deployments from around the world and conducting workshops to discuss the challenges being experienced by Saudi operators. Since early 2020 Saudi mobile operators have identified solutions to their challenges, such as upgrading billing systems to support IPv6. All mobile operators including STC, Zain and Mobily are now progressively enabling IPv6 to their mobile customer base. These combined efforts have resulted in Saudi Arabia being the leader in IPv6 adoption in the Middle East.
Some challenges remain regarding mobile handset compatibility but cooperation between handset vendors and operators on priorities and roadmaps has greatly improved recently. Provisioning IPv6-only services is where testing is focused now. The fixed network landscape is less complex as customer premises equipment is built to service provider specifications.
The next and growing challenge for service providers is to support connectivity to IPv4-only services. There is a strong feeling that many content providers need to do more to support IPv6 deployment, especially popular gaming platforms and social networks.
It is great to see focused attention to the challenge of IPv6 deployment in Saudi Arabia paying off and the continued focus on KPIs and remaining milestones promises continued strong growth of IPv6 use.