World and Nation

New system to add internet addresses as numbers run out

Who could have guessed that 4.3 billion Internet connections wouldn’t be enough?

Certainly not Vint Cerf.

Cerf, a former Defense Department worker, was one of those who set a limit on the number of Internet addresses back in 1977, when the Internet was little more than an experiment.

“The problem was, the experiment never ended,” added Cerf, who is a former chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a nonprofit corporation that coordinates the Internet naming system. “We had no idea it would turn into the world’s global communications network.”

Today, the Internet that Cerf helped create more than 30 years ago is about to max out. Within the next 12 to 18 months, or perhaps sooner, every one of the 4.3 billion Internet Protocol addresses will have been allocated, and the Internet, at least as it exists today, will have reached full capacity.

Experts saw this problem coming years ago, and the transition to a new system, referred to as Internet Protocol version 6, is well under way. This new standard will support a virtually inexhaustible number of devices, experts say. But there is some cause for concern because the two systems are largely incompatible, and as the transition takes place, the potential for breakdowns is enormous.

“This is a major turning point in the ongoing development of the Internet,” Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s president and chief executive, said. “No one was caught off guard by this.”

Still, the question looms: Is the Internet industry prepared?

The answer depends on whom you ask. While it is true that no one has been caught off guard, some parts of the industry responded faster than others, leaving some technology companies scrambling to catch up. The major operating systems — like Microsoft’s Windows 7 and Apple’s Mac OS X — have already incorporated the new system. And providers, including Comcast, say they are ready to make the switch.

But Cerf is critical of Internet service providers, along with the manufacturers of Internet devices, for not addressing the problem sooner, saying many chose to wait until customers started asking for the new system.

“How can customers be expected to know what they need?” Cerf said. He compared Internet protocols to the internal workings of a car engine.

“It’s like changing a gear in a car’s transmission,” he said. “People shouldn’t have to worry about that.”