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Europe sees Net running out of room

The European Commission wants to see a shift to a more expansive version of the Net, to make way for wireless devices. But it's not as easy as just flipping the "on" switch.

The European Commission on Thursday called for more efforts to expand the Internet's real estate because the current one is running out of space.

The EC said in a statement that business and government leaders in Europe must work harder to shift the Internet infrastructure to run on Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) from the current IPv4 to make room for the flood of wireless devices crowding the Net.

Every device that accesses the Internet--such as a PC, a personal digital assistant or a cell phone--needs an IP address. Switching to IPv6 would help meet the growing demand for IP addresses, as the technology allows for more than does the current system.

"Without the 'IPv6 upgrade,' the Internet will inevitably degrade under the mounting pressure of new users and growing traffic while new innovations critical to European competitiveness will be stifled," the EC said in its statement.

The goal is not a new direction for the EC, which has pushed the IPv6 technology for some time and believes the increasing use of mobile Internet devices will only worsen the existing problem.

Europe is "12 to 18 months ahead of the U.S. when it comes to cell phones and the use of cell phones for e-commerce," said analyst Stan Schatt, of Giga Information Group. But "Europe didn't get as many IP addresses as the United States," he added.

The EC says 74 percent of IPv4 addresses belong to North American organizations, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford each owning more addresses than the Peoples' Republic of China.

Schatt says the need for Internet addresses will explode as wireless technology permeates everyday living and requires devices like vending machines and home appliances to use the Internet.

But the migration to IPv6 will take time and will not be just a matter of turning one technology off and another on.

Muayyad Al-Chalabi, an analyst at RHK, says manufacturers must equip every device to run on the new standard. Telecom networks will also need to run both IPv4 and IPv6 during the transition, much like the wireless networks that handle both analog and digital signals today.

"The technology has to be in a dual mode for a long time," Al-Chalabi said.

The EC says the current reserve of addresses is expected to run out in 2005.