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For online users, a looming shortage of IP addresses

The numerical sequences, which allow machines to communicate with one another, could run out in the next few years.

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The seemingly boundless Internet is running out of a key resource: new IP addresses.

IP addresses, which are somewhat like telephone numbers, allow machines in homes and offices to locate and communicate with one another over the global network. The evaporating supply of new addresses – which some estimates say could dry up in about three years – could drive up the price of Internet access as well as disrupt the growth and performance of the network, warn some experts.

Worried that opportunists will hoard addresses to speculatively sell them, the organization responsible for handing out addresses in North America announced Wednesday that it would try to regulate the emerging trade. And in recent months, Internet administrators have been more forcefully urging software vendors, Internet service providers (ISPs), and major content providers to transition to a new addressing system.

Because upgrading can take years, the time to act is now, some experts say. "I suspect we are actually beyond a reasonable time frame where there won't be some disruption. It's just a question of how much," says David Conrad, general manager for the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the top body that allocates IP addresses. "The largest impact to most people would be that there's no way out of paying higher prices for Internet service."

As the pool of new addresses shrinks, explains Mr. Conrad, organizations and companies with surplus addresses are likely to make them available – for a price. That cost will be passed along to consumers when they order Internet access.

Shortsighted programming

The reason for the problem stems from shortsighted programming, as was the case with the Y2K bug at the turn of the millennium. Addresses under the current standard, known as IPv4, are made up of four integers between 0 and 255. That allows for roughly 4.3 billion addresses – not enough to keep pace with expanding Internet access in India and China as well as the variety of devices going online.

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