4 April 2022 | 7 min read

How Big Is the Internet? 

Can we measure the size of the internet using IP addresses as a unit of measurement? Continue reading to find out.

The physical weight of the internet is around the weight of a tennis ball.

Is it possible to measure the size or volume of something as intangible as the internet? The answer depends on how you approach the question. If you measure the size of the internet by users or existing websites, gathering the data is easy. But does that answer the question: How big is the internet? 

If we measure the size of the entire internet by IP addresses, for example, the answer is not as straightforward. Of course, we know the exact number of IP addresses – both IPv4 and IPv6 – but we also know that not all are in use. In fact, some 800 million IPv4s might remain unutilized. 

Geoff Huston, the Chief Scientist at APNIC, estimates that around 49 /8s are unadvertised. So, should we measure the size of the internet by how many IPs are in use or by how many of them are in total? 

The question is truly fascinating, and we need to consider many variables. Let’s look at how the Internet Protocol and IP addresses play into the sizing of the internet.  

The internet in numbers 

We can look at the internet purely from the standpoint of numbers. Here are a few interesting figures that can help us see the bigger picture: 

A scale comparing IPv4 and IPv6 addresses with IPv6 side weighing down.
A scale sizing IPv6 addresses vs. IPv4 addresses 

Scientists have even attempted to measure the size of the internet in physical weight. Depending on whether you reference Russell Seitz or the Discovery Magazine, the internet weighs either 60 grams or 6 micrograms. If we trusted Seitz’s calculations, the entirety of the internet is no heavier than a tennis ball.  

Evidently, there is no single measurement that we could use to size the internet. However, IP addresses offer an interesting perspective.  

Before we look at how IP addresses can help us understand the magnitude of the internet, let’s answer two important questions: What is the internet and how does it work? 

A short history of the internet 

The architecture of today’s internet comprises small elements that help us communicate smoothly. Numerous organizations and governing bodies support this architecture, and hundreds of people have contributed to its success.  

Here are some of the most significant milestones in the history of the internet thus far: 

  • 1962 – J.C.R. Licklider develops the concept of the Galactic Network 
  • 1967 – Lawrence G. Roberts introduces the concept of ARPANET 
  • 1969 – UCLA and SRI connect to create the world’s first computer network 
  • 1974 – Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn coin the term internet (short for internetworking) 
  • 1981 – Internet Protocol version 4 is defined and introduced 
  • 1982 – The TCP/IP suite is adopted as the protocol standard 
  • 1988 – IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is founded 
  • 1989 – The first commercial ISPs (internet service providers) emerge in the US and Australia 
  • 1990 – Tim Berners-Lee develops the HTTP protocol and the HTML language 
  • 1992 – The first Regional Internet Registry (RIPE NCC) is founded in the Netherlands 
  • 1995 – Internet Protocol version 6 is defined and introduced 
  • 1997 – IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) introduces Wi-Fi 
  • 1998 – ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is founded 
  • 2004 – The fifth and final RIR (AFRINIC) is established in Mauritius  
  • 2011 – IANA officially allocates the last /8 from its IPv4 pool, marking the global IPv4 exhaustion 
  • 2012 – The Internet Society celebrates the World IPv6 Launch day to promote IPv6 adoption 

How does the internet work? 

The answer to the question might seem obvious to some, but the reality is that most people do not understand the internet beyond the light on the modem. If the light is green – we have the internet!  

In short, the internet is a system of computer networks that communicate with each other. But how exactly does this system function? To understand this, we can look at how home internet users load websites.  

First and foremost, you need a modem. Without it, your device cannot connect to an internet service provider (ISP) via cables. Once an internet connection is established, you can launch a web browser application and type the domain name of the target website into the URL box.  

Your ISP processes the query and uses the Domain Name System (DNS) to look up the IP address of the queried domain name. The browser then sends an HTTP request to a server to receive a copy of the web page. The server responds by sending data packets, smaller pieces of the data you requested. 

Once the data packets are reassembled, the web browser loads the web page you requested to see. And this all happens within milliseconds. 

A laptop with a search engine bar on the screen.
DNS translates memorable domain names into numeric IP addresses 

Undoubtedly, IP addresses play an important role in how the internet works. But how important are they really? 

IP addresses as a unit of measurement 

As you already know, the internet is a system of computer networks that communicate with each other. Numerous communication protocols come into play here, and the Internet Protocol is, without a doubt, one of the more important ones. Why? It routes and addresses data packets.  

IP addresses, or IPs, are crucial in this process as they ensure that data packets end up where they need to go. These addresses are unique numbers that identify devices on the internet, and without them, it would be impossible to send and receive data because it would not know where to go. 

Think of IP addresses as postal addresses. If a letter has a destination address, it can reach that destination, and if it has the sender’s address, it’s clear where the letter is coming from. In the same vein, data packets can travel efficiently only if senders and recipients are apparent.  

IPv4 vs. IPv6 

There are two different types of IP addresses – IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.  

When it comes to IPv4 vs. IPv6, quite a few differences exist, and it is no secret that the newer version is superior. This version emerged as soon as it became obvious that the fourth version of the IP could not support the internet forever. Still, IPv4 reigns supreme.  

Unfortunately, IPv4 addresses – the building blocks of the internet – were officially exhausted when IANA allocated the last IP blocks from its pool back in 2011. That, however, did not imply the end of the IPv4 address. Although IPv6 was intended as a replacement, IPv4 continues to be perhaps the most integral part of the internet today. 

A stack of IPv4 blocks representing the internet.
IPv4 addresses as the building blocks of the internet today 

IPv4 demand continues to grow 

Because the internet as we know it does not exist without IP addresses and because there is a limited number of them, it is no wonder that IPv4s have earned a commodity status in the last decade. As a result, numerous brokerages emerged to assist companies in selling and buying IPv4 addresses. 

In 2011, Sandra Brown, the current President of IPv4 Market Group, was the broker that helped Nortel sell 666,624 IPv4 addresses for $7.5 million to Microsoft. Since then, selling and buying IPs on a large scale has become quite common.  

Unfortunately, as IPv4 prices continue to climb, it is becoming harder for small to medium-sized companies to buy IPs. That means that IP purchases are reserved for companies with massive capital. What does that leave smaller companies with? An inability to scale and grow.  

Around 800 million IPv4 addresses remain unused 

In 2018, Geoff Huston estimated that 49 /8s – or 822,083,584 unique IPv4 addresses – were not advertised. Simply put, unused. In a world that is dealing with complete IPv4 exhaustion, this is wasted potential.  

Although more recent data is not yet available, it is clear that unused IPs exist. What does that mean? There are plenty of IPs that we can bring back into the market. Fortunately, companies that hold unutilized IPv4 resources are quickly becoming aware of the advantages of IP monetization. 

All in all, IPv4 addresses have become a commodity, lease prices are climbing every year and companies are actively checking their inventories for IPs ready for monetization. As a result, IPv4 leasing is becoming increasingly more popular than buying. 

Leasing IPv4 addresses is more popular that buying IPv4 addresses.
IPv4 leasing is becoming more popular than IPv4 buying 

The size of the IPv4 space 

While we may be unable to determine the size of the internet, if we use IPv4 addresses as a unit of measurement, we can try to evaluate the size of the internet supported by IPv4. Here are a few important figures:

  • 4,294,967,296 IPv4 addresses in total 
  • /24, /20 and /16 blocks (one of each) are reserved for the private address space, which comes up to nearly 17.9 million IPv4 addresses 
  • Around 270 million IPv4s are reserved for multicasting 
  • 49 /8s, or 822 million IPv4 addresses, could remain unused 

What does that leave us with? A little more than 3 billion IPv4 addresses in use. If you look at this number, the internet seems relatively small. And if we compare it to the 340 undecillion IPv6 addresses, the internet supported by IPv4 looks like a small planet on the edge of a vast galaxy.  

Still, IPv6 addresses are not yet utilized on a wide scale, and IPv6 adoption is much slower than initially expected. Once we start switching to IPv6 more actively, the size of the internet is bound to expand. However, we may be decades away from that. 

Sustainable management expands the internet 

By utilizing the resources available to us logically and responsibly, we can build a more sustainable internet. The kind of internet that provides companies big and small with the same opportunities to scale operations and grow.  

Yes, the internet supported by IPv4 addresses is quite tight – simply because we have exhausted all free IP addresses – but there are still gaps that lack responsible management. If we bring all unused resources back into the market, it is possible to alleviate the global shortage and assist the transition to an IPv6-supported internet.  

As the internet grows in size, everyone from internet architects to business owners must utilize the available resources responsibly and sustainably. IPv4 leasing is one of the tools that can help balance the current state within the market and, hopefully, expand the internet just a little bit more.