The EC has called for urgent action to accelerate the rollout of next-generation internet technologies before the current maximum of four billion web addresses is reached.

"Without an upgrade the internet will inevitably degrade under the mounting pressure of new users and growing traffic," said Commissioner Erkki Liikanen at the end of last week.

The EC's Ipv6 Priorities for action campaign calls on Europe to accelerate the rollout of the next-generation IP (internet protocol), Ipv6, which would provide several quadrillion addresses for each person on the planet. In theory, this would create more locations in cyberspace than there are grains of sand in the world.

But experts at Cisco systems, responsible for the rollout of the Ipv6 infrastructure, think the situation is not quite so urgent.

"The internet isn't going to grind to a halt," said a Cisco spokesman. "There's likely to be a number of new devices, domestic electronics and mobile technology connecting to the internet, and at some point the current IP capacity will run out. But whether this will be by 2005 can not fairly be predicted."

Every website has an IP address — in effect an online postal address. The current version of IP, Ipv4, was conceived in the 1970s when it provided four billion addresses. However, space on this system could run out of headroom by as early as 2005.

"There's no way the new system is ever going to run out," said Cisco's spokesman. "The internet has grown dramatically since 1973, when Ipv4 was introduced, but there still aren't anywhere near several quadrillion people on the internet, nor are there ever likely to be."

Ipv6 has been in discussion for a few years and rollout has begun. However, according to the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) this will be a gradual process that will happen over the next few years.

"It's not going to grind to a halt. Change needs to be made but gradually," said an IWF spokesman. "Obviously, nothing is infinite and addresses will run out."