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IPv6 Over Satellite: Pie in the Sky?

I am writing this from the Satellite 2008 conference in Washington, D.C. As I make my way through the exhibits, I see many vendors advertising IP capabilities in their hardware products or network services. But when asked about IPv6 support, the common reply is a not so believable “it is on our roadmap” followed by a somewhat vague delivery date. Although IPv6 development has been slow across the board, it appears to be moving even more slowly in the satellite world.

The product suites that satellite providers offer are largely based on capacity and coverage. That is where the money is. Even though broadband services were huge at the exhibition, interest revolves around topics like new modulation techniques that can squeeze more sellable bandwidth out of transponders and scarce capacity. Value-added features like IP have made huge progress this decade, but they are still somewhat secondary and always seem a step behind the terrestrial world.

Maybe it’s the culture. The satellite industry is still dominated by engineers versed in RF and other satellite-oriented technologies rather than IP, as it should be. IP is still somewhat mysterious if not boring, and conversations revolve more around things like modulation, look angles and EIRP. Perhaps this conference is like going to a voice convention in the mid-90’s where there were maybe a few vendors talking about VoIP while the majority spoke of things like class 5 switches, key systems and ?-law PCM.

Or is it just that no one is asking for IPv6? Maybe satellite vendors are doing the right thing by responding to market demand, or lack thereof as the case may be. They have more immediate requirements to satisfy, and perhaps it is a business case and ROI that is dictating their direction. Fair enough. But my guess is that the large majority has not really assessed what IPv6 may bring to the table.

The thing is, the satellite market may be the first to really capitalize on IPv6. A large part of the market consists of regions underserved by fiber. These tend to be the very same countries who are short on IP (version 4) addresses and whose Internet capabilities are hampered as a result. They also tend to be the fastest growing market segments and the ones with the largest population growth. Those same markets may be the first to embrace IPv6 and its virtually unlimited address space.

Satellite providers also serve a large market of mobile customers such as the military or emergency response units that must set up and communicate quickly when responding to disasters such as the 2004 tsunami or Katrina. Some of IPv6’s best features are its inherent support for mobility and its auto-configuration capabilities that make deploying an ad hoc network quick and easy. One thing I did hear was that there were significant requirements coming from the military. Additionally, many new mobile phones are being released with built-in IPv6 capabilities. These kinds of mobile customers may be quick to require IPv6 support.

Other IPv6 features may also be of benefit to customers of satellite services.

In addition to being backward compatible with IPv4’s differentiated services (“diffserv”), IPv6 contains a new Quality of Service (QoS) feature that allows for much greater flexibility than diffserv can provide. The 20-bit “Flow Label” allows for the mapping of flows (individual transaction sessions) and other information into the IPv6 header for visibility and processing at layer 3. This eliminates the burden on network systems to process flows by using information at multiple layers. It also reduces the security issue of leaving data in the clear for such external processing. This is important in the broadcast-oriented satellite world. Furthermore, because satellite-based IP services delivered in remote areas are often used for voice over IP, these advanced QoS capabilities will be quite useful.

IPv6 also promotes the end-to-end communications model, an original Internet concept that has largely been lost due to the issues that private IP addressing and Network Address Translation (NAT) present. As the Internet user community becomes increasingly peer-to-peer, the demand for bi-directional capacity will increase. Satellite services, which are largely asymmetrical with more bandwidth outbound than inbound, may see demand increasing for inbound bandwidth.

But for now things seem to be moving slowly, and the satellite world seems to lie in wait. Perhaps a killer application will finally emerge to propel IPv6 into the mainstream, and those waiting will follow. With benefits that may serve the satellite market well, and given the limited support that currently exists, the first to exploit the features of IPv6 may find themselves in a favorable market position in just a few years.

By Dan Campbell, President, Millennia Systems, Inc.

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Lynda L. True  –  Feb 28, 2008 6:37 AM

I think that you should look towards the Space and Defense market first. These things always show up in unlikely places.

This project should interest you.

Next Gen Router for TSAT 999

jeroen  –  Feb 28, 2008 9:47 AM

IABG press report from 2004:
“IABG is pushing the new Internet standard “IPv6 via Satellite”“


That is 4 years ago. It exists and is there and is being used :)

Dan Campbell  –  Feb 28, 2008 2:21 PM

I wonder why IABG chose not to have a booth at the Sat conference this week.  They seem to attend many others.

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