Internet traffic has continued to explode even during the global economic recession, but computing experts said it won't be able to keep growing indefinitely unless online service providers widely adopt an upgrade in the Net's fundamental structure.
Computer network authorities spoke on Tuesday about the pressing need to expand the number of Internet addresses at the annual convention of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in Honolulu.
More and more devices, from refrigerators to cars, will connect to the Internet in the future, and each will need an address so it can communicate with the world, said Kazuhiro Gomi, chief operating officer for Internet Service Provider NTT America.
"Everybody has a lot of dreams that more people and devices will get hooked up to the network," Gomi said. "Those who defined Internet standards didn't think about this kind of world to come, so there are various limitations on address space."
Internet traffic has increased about 75 percent in each of the last seven years, and that growth spurt hasn't been slowed by the poor economy, Gomi said.
A technology known as IPv6 was created about a decade ago to replace the crowded IPv4 technology now used by most online-enabled devices, but it hasn't yet seen widespread use. Less than 1 percent of Internet-enabled devices now use IPv6, although NTT transitioned in 2003.
Besides helping the Internet grow, IPv6 also will enable new TV, security and multicasting features.
It won't be long before the already short supply of conventional Internet addresses runs thin, said Tony Hill, president of the Internet Society of Australia.
"The mental problem for people is that the IPv4 Internet as we know it will continue to operate. It just can't grow," Hill said. "Unless they severely need growth, they're not feeling any pain."
The number of old Internet addresses is projected to run out in 2011, according to the American Registry for Internet Numbers.
Most Internet customers won't notice a difference during the transition, Hill said. It will be up to the Internet Service Providers to make the change.
Internet businesses and governments should switch now instead of waiting until the last minute, said Alan Whinery, chief Internet engineer for the University of Hawaii.
"We just need the word to be out," Whinery said. "Sitting and talking about it in an IEEE meeting isn't going to do it."
The IEEE is a 365,000-member professional association based in New Jersey that develops technology standards and fosters the Internet's growth.