Internet addresses will run out in 340 days

It's the end of the web as we know it. According to an Australian expert, we're less than a year away from using up all currently available IP addresses - and the solution to the problem could be costly.

IP addresses are the strings of numbers used to identify devices on the Internet, into which the more recognisable web addresses or 'Universal Resource Locators' (URLs) are translated. Each IP address uniquely identifies a computer, mobile or other device that is attached to the Internet.

The version of the Internet Protocol currently used to determine these addresses, version 4 (IPv4), uses 32-bit addressing - which enables it to provide a maximum of just over four billion IP addresses.

Of those, only 232 million remain unused. At the rate these IP addresses are currently being assigned, we will have run out in under 340 days.

Experts blame the rise of smartphones and mobile internet access for the unforeseen shortfall in IP addresses.

"When the IPv4 protocol was developed 30 years ago, it seemed to be a reasonable attempt at providing enough addresses, bearing in mind that at that point personal computers didn't really exist," John Lindsay, carrier relations manager at Australian ISP Internode told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Of course, there is a solution to the problem: plans are under way to shift internet addressing from IPv4 to IPv6, which uses 128-bit addressing to offer a far bigger range of addresses.

But the move won't be easy. "Moving from IPv4 to IPv6 is a little like changing the tyres while continuing to drive along in your car," Lindsay says.

Software, and in some cases hardware, will need to be upgraded in order to work with the new IPv6 - and the cost of overhauling systems means some ISPs are dragging their heels.

As a stop-gap, Lindsay says, ISPs may force customers who aren't able to pay premium connection charges to share IP addresses - a move that could cause conflicts that will prevent services such as cloud-based streaming music, or VoIP telephony, from working.

Vint Cerf, Google's chief internet evangelist, made a video appeal to ISPs in June, urging them to speed up migration to IPv6.