The U.S. risks falling behind other countries in the race to switch to the next generation of the Internet.
The federal government must move to the new Internet protocol by 2008, and the Defense Department started its transition in 2003. But since then, the U.S. has slipped behind many Asian and European nations in making the switch, said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) was designed to replace the IPv4, which has been used for more than 20 years but faces a shortage of the addresses needed by computers, cell phones and other devices.
Less than 24 percent of the current Internet's 4.3 billion addresses remain unused, while IPv6 can support enough addresses for every human being to have trillions of his or her own. IPv6 also offers enhanced direct communication capabilities and security features.
Although the two protocols will work in tandem during an undetermined transition period, IPv4 users, or nations, could find themselves isolated in the future.
After a report in May from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only the Defense Department had started planning for IPv6, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) set a 2008 deadline for all federal agencies to move to the new protocol. Those transition plans are scheduled for review in June.
The Defense Department mandate signaled to the rest of world that IPv6 was the future, because the biggest worldwide user of technology had endorsed the new protocol, Latif Ladid, president of the nonprofit IPv6 Forum in Luxembourg, said yesterday at a conference in Falls Church.
The U.S. government is the largest information-technology purchaser in the world, with estimates for $90 billion in spending by fiscal 2010. Yet China is funding telecommunications operators making the IPv6 switch, while Japan is providing economic incentives for businesses to do the same, Mr. Davis said.
Japan and the European Union each have earmarked $200 million in funding for IPv6 research, and China is spending $170 million, Mr. Ladid said. U.S. research has been funded almost exclusively by the private sector.
China also wants to tout itself as the most technologically advanced country in the world at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which could provide a springboard to sell its IPv6 products here, said Tom Patterson, chief executive of Command Information, a technology consulting firm in Herndon.
"We can't afford to stay behind," Mr. Davis said, adding that he endorses the creation of a transition office dedicated to the problem, similar to the one established to deal with the year 2000 computer issue.
But the OMB has no plans to establish a new office.
"IPv6 is part of the IT investments that are already included in the E-Gov and IT offices' responsibilities," said OMB spokesman Alex Conant. "We will continue to work with agencies to ensure a smooth transfer."
Industry panelists said Sony Corp.'s PlayStation online gaming system, as well as some cameras and copiers in Asia, already are on the new protocol.
Machines running Linux or Microsoft Corp.'s Vista operating system -- which the Redmond, Wash., company recently announced would be delayed until January -- also are IPv6-ready.
Of the 8,000 Internet service providers worldwide, about 10 percent offer IPv6, Mr. Ladid said. Consumers can get the necessary connections now in the U.S., but it takes hours to set up and only a few companies sell them.
Consumers can expect to see IPv6 benefits in "three to four years, if we implement correctly," but that depends on who does it, Mr. Davis said. "If we don't, we'll be buying products from Europe and China."
The next 24 months will be a "very interesting, chaotic period," said Marine Corps Lt. Col. James Bacchus, strategic planner in the office of the assistants to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for National Guard and Reserve Matters. No one knows which will be first large program or user group to take advantage of IPv6, but he said the Defense Department will be first at doing IPv6 best.