Swelling numbers of iPads, e-readers and laptops are swallowing up the finite space on the Internet and raising fears of the types of slowdowns and glitches predicted with the Y2K bug.
The problem stems from a decades-old oversight: the Internet's inventors assumed four billion numeric addresses would be plenty.
They weren't counting on tweens from Toronto to Tibet exhausting those addresses with their iPhones, BlackBerrys and Kindles.
There's almost no room left on the Internet for new computers and gadgets and Canadian Internet service providers are competing rather than co-operating to solve the problem.
Internet Protocol or IP addresses are assigned to every device that communicates through the Internet, and are based on a 32-bit number.
A new, spacious version of the Internet is available with 128-bit IP addresses, but ISPs waited too long to upgrade. Now the biggest fix in cyberspace may come down to the digital equivalent of binder twine and masking tape.
Canadians could see problems when the space expires and ISPs make customers straddle the old Internet and the new Internet.
Old software might fail to reach new websites. Old firewalls might stop everything new from working altogether, or new firewalls might let in hackers old ones stopped. Anti-spam software won't realize which e-mails are from known spammers.
U.S. cable provider Comcast began public trials of its upgrade in April last year to develop a viable system for 2012. Major Canadian ISPs say they're working on the problem but they won't say how they'll fix it.
Bell Canada declined to comment on the issue. Shaw didn't return phone calls and Rogers refuses to provide details to tech-savvy customers who ask online.
All of this megabyte mayhem has its roots in a high-tech research lab adjacent to the Pentagon In Arlington, Va.
Vint Cerf managed the Internet project for the U.S. military in the 1970s and he decided four billion addresses would be enough. The only interconnected gadgets back then were a few hundred mainframe computers scattered around the world.
Some asked whether the number would be sufficient. Cerf convinced them to set the issue aside.
“Well, it's now later,” Cerf says. “Today every user has multiple machines, they have mobiles, they have laptops, they have notepads, they have Internet-enabled refrigerators.”
The explosion of consumer products connected to the Internet and the huge growth in consumer purchasing power in Asia has suddenly filled the available space on the Internet and turned four billion addresses into a scarce resource.
Now only two per cent of Internet space remains for North American ISPs like Rogers and Bell to claim from the American Registry for Internet Numbers.
“That'll likely last for several months,” says Richard Jimmerson, the chief information officer at the registry. “But there could be an increasing demand for the resource inside the next couple of months that could cause that inventory to deplete faster.”
After that, Canadians will be stuck with expanding demand and vanishing stores.
An upgrade in the system, called IPv6, has been available since 1996. It demands software tweaks in every computer, router, server, data centre and smartphone around the world.
Most recent software supports IPv6 already. The laggards are ISPs, who haven't heeded Cerf's 15 years of advocacy.
“They haven't turned it on for absolutely fatuous reasons. For example, ‘well, nobody's asking for IPv6,“’ says Cerf. “Of course they're not asking for IPv6, users don't know about this stuff! They never even see these addresses.”
The last upgrade was on Jan. 1, 1983, when only a few hundred computers were connected. Cerf convinced users to upgrade by turning off the old version and fielding angry phone calls.
The IPv6 upgrade could take another 20 years. Until it's completed companies and customers need the old and new versions of the Internet to run at the same time.
ISPs around the globe will surely deploy new systems this year or next, according to Jimmerson, and “there are going to be some glitches.”
But Jimmerson says they're working covertly so they can out-do each other with speed and features.
In other words, each provider is hoping the others will make mistakes.
The Canadian government is years behind its peers. In 2005 the Bush administration set a deadline to upgrade government equipment. That deadline was met in 2008. China used IPv6 during the 2008 Olympics to connect to security cameras and taxis.
Industry Canada did not return multiple calls asking for their plans on dealing with the issue.
The first hint of consequences could arrive in June. A 24-hour worldwide test similar to Cerf's 1983 upgrade will see major websites such as Google and Yahoo turn on IPv6 for every provider that wants to test it.
Over 50 major websites and ISPs around the world have publicly pledged to run the experiment. ISPs that don't participate won't find their glitches.
No major Canadian ISP has publicly said it will take part in the test.