Electrical Co-ops & IP Addresses

By Leo Vegoda
July 27, 2022

Electricity was the 20th century’s essential utility. It remains essential, of course, and electricity’s growing role in everything from heating to transportation means providers, including electrical co-ops, are at the center of the era’s growth. In parallel is the newest must-have “utility” – Internet access. It is the 21st century’s new essential and is growing alongside electricity’s role. Electrical co-ops can provide both to everyone’s benefit.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) estimates that there are 6.3 million households in co-op service areas without broadband. Reliable internet access could give them an average of $2,000 in economic benefits each year. NRECA estimates that it’s worth $70 billion in economic value to the communities that co-ops serve when calculated over 20 years. 

The means to add broadband to existing systems is readily available. Wires are already in place. In response to this opportunity, beginning in 1982, SkyWrap technology enabled electricity transmission networks to add fiber optic cables. This cable is helically wrapped onto existing overhead power lines. The small cable offers minimal load and low environmental impact. To provide the same access when the existing power lines are supported only by wood or concrete poles, the lighter AccessWrap technology now does the same thing. Electricity co-ops now have a low-cost way of bringing high-speed internet access to their existing customer base.

These technologies matter for a number of reasons. Primarily, though, building a network is expensive. So, when a network exists it’s important to get the most value from it for both the operator and customers. That’s particularly important for co-operatives because they are owned by their users. 

Fortunately, last year’s bi-partisan infrastructure deal allocated $65 billion to deliver broadband to rural communities and low-income urban residents. $42.5 billion is reserved for a broadband grant program administered by the states. 

What’s Required?

The amount of data sent over Internet Protocol networks grows year over year. But there’s one resource that cannot grow: IP addresses. An IP address is a unique identifier for a device on a network, including the internet. IP stands for Internet Protocol which is a set of rules (a protocol), for addressing and routing data so it can travel through networks and arrive at its intended destination. Hence, “address.” Each Internet-connected device has a unique IP address.

The most widely deployed version of these addresses is IPv4 (Internet Protocol Version Four). Its designers gave it a maximum of about 4.3 billion addresses. We can only use about 3.8 billion of them for ordinary internet services. This presents a challenge because there are about eight billion people on earth and many of them use multiple devices. Demand for internet access is only growing but the pool of IPv4 addresses is fixed.

We can tackle the problem in two ways. The first is to make ever more careful use of the IPv4 address space. Network Address Translation (NAT) is one approach that allows users to share addresses. Many networks do this at considerable scale.

Another approach is to deploy IPv6. IPv6 is very similar to IPv4 but has far more addresses available to network operators. But IPv6 is not universally deployed. About half of Google’s US traffic comes over IPv6. But there are many developed European economies where 10% or less of Google’s traffic is IPv6.

Plus, access providers need to offer an IPv4 service because most of the top-ranking websites aren’t served over IPv6. At the start of July 2022, almost three-in-four of these top-ranking websites were only available over IPv4.

How Much Space?

New networks need to deploy enough IPv4 addresses to deliver a reliable internet access service to all kinds of users. There are three considerations.

Service Level

Large Scale NAT, also known as Carrier Grade NAT, may seem attractive to co-ops because it allows each unique address to service multiple subscribers. But sharing addresses between subscribers can be challenging for some services and can increase support costs.

SIDN, the Dutch ccTLD operator, reported Brazilian research into CGNATs in 2019. They found lots of different problems. Gamer forums in 2022 are full of questions about problems with CGNAT and the PlaysStation network. There are new vendor articles on fixing configurations being published, and David Anderson has described some of the architectural problems on APNIC’s blog.

Resilience

Configurations in one network can impact another networks. Even unjustified decisions from major content networks can have an impact on a co-ops’s subscribers ability to use their internet access to login to their bank or watch a TV show. Blocked IP addresses and any number of other challenges can interrupt local service. So, having enough surplus address space to replace misclassified addresses is useful in keeping subscribers happy by providing uninterrupted service. Put simply, reputation problems become customer service problems and can also increase costs. 

IPv6

Deploying IPv6 alongside IPv4 takes some extra effort but it can be helpful. If your      provider decides to have multiple subscribers share each IPv4 address, shifting some of the internet traffic to IPv6 can help improve the overall service quality. This is because more ports—equivalent to a radio frequency—are then available to each subscriber.

But this comes at the cost of some added complexity. There are two network protocols active. This means more configuration and more monitoring.

The Market

The organizations that manage the distribution of IP addresses, regional registries, are keenly aware there are not enough IPv4 addresses to go around. Plus, they are aware NAT and IPv6 solutions are not complete responses to the problem and will not – alone – avoid an addressing crisis. So, these governing bodies developed policies to enable transfers of addresses between organizations. Which means those with more IPv4 addresses than they need can transfer them (at a price) to those who need additional addresses.

In the early development of the internet there appeared to be virtually unlimited amounts of IP addresses. Many institutions today have 65,000 or more IPv4 addresses but only use a small fraction of them. So, the holders of these addresses are selling the rights to them.

IPv4.Global has an auction service that connects buyers and sellers of IPv4 addresses. We help organizations use IP addressing to achieve their business goals.