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Internet running out of digital addresses

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Kai Ryssdal: I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you probably use at least one of the following: a smartphone, a laptop or an iPad. And that’s in addition to the desktop computer you use maybe at home and one at the office.

Each and every one of those devices has something called an Internet Protocol address, or an IP address. It’s a little bit like a phone number that lets you dial up the Internet. And you know how sometimes a place runs out of phone numbers and has to add area codes to make calls go through? In about a week, the most common type of IP addresses are going to run out as well.

Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins reports.

Jennifer Collins: Today, I went looking for my computer’s unique IP address.

Collins typing: Click on that. Oh, and my IP address is…

OK, it’s not the most exciting thing. Dan Campbell is a consultant with network engineering company Millennia Systems.

Dan Campbell: It’s probably the most trivial and should be the least expensive part of a service.

Most IP addresses — four billion of them — are in our primary system. Those are about to run out. So Campbell says many companies will try to get customers to share.

Bear with me here. If an IP address is kind of like a phone number, sharing them is kind of like a using “party line.” Remember the ’50s movie “Pillow Talk”? Doris Day and Rock Hudson starred as neighbors with a shared phone line.

Clip from “Pillow Talk”: They had absolutely nothing in common except a party line. “Will you please get off this line?”

Martin Levy of Internet service provider Hurricane Electric says sharing creates new problems.

Martin Levy: It could be that the streaming of a video is not going to be as smooth because you’re competing literally against your neighbor.

Levy says there is a more permanent fix — another IP system is available. And it may have more addresses than there are stars in the sky. But companies have been slow to change because it means new equipment and training costs. Still Levy says staying put could mean lousy Internet service and could be costlier in the long run.

I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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