Companies and public sector institutions in the EU should switch to using IPv6 by 2010, the European Commission has said.

The Commission's [communique] is intended as a wake-up call primarily for public authorities at national and regional levels throughout the EU.

The Commission called for the 27 member countries to put their public sector institutions at the forefront of IPv6 deployment by switching their own Internet networks, public sector websites and e-government services without delay.

A quick and efficient switch from IPv4, the protocols that have been in use since 1984, will help avert extra costs for consumers and will give European companies a competitive advantage, said the Commission, the EU's executive and regulatory body.

"In the short term, businesses and public authorities might be tempted to try to squeeze their needs into the strait jacket of the old system, but this would mean Europe is badly placed to take advantage of the latest Internet technology, and could face a crisis when the old system runs out of addresses," said Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for information society and media.

IPv4 provides 4.3 billion addresses, of which only about 700 million or 16 percent remain free and available for new connections. The new Internet protocol, IPv6, will make an almost unlimited amount of IP addresses available and so support new applications using devices that are too numerous or costly for IPv4.

"If Europeans are to use the latest Internet devices such as smart tags in shops, factories and airports, intelligent heating and lighting systems that save energy, and in-car networks and navigation systems, then we already face a thousand-fold increase in demand for IP addresses. I call on Member States to make sure that public authorities and industry have IPv6 widely sown up by 2010," Reding said.

Most new computer and server software sold by major manufacturers is already IPv6 compatible, but the computers and devices running this software are still only reachable through their old IPv4 addresses.

Europe's research community has set a good example. "GEANT," the pan-European research network, is already 100-percent IPv6 compatible and has led to Europe having the highest take-up of IPv6 addresses of any region in the world, the Commission said.

However, adoption in the wider community is still weak, it concluded.

By comparison, NTT (Nippon Telecom and Telegraph) in Japan has already has a public IPv6 infrastructure backbone. China plans to implement networks that are IPv4 and IPv6 compatible before the Beijing Olympics, but observers are questioning whether that goal will be accomplished. The US government is demanding IPv6 as a requirement for public procurement, but take-up in the wider community in the US has been as slow as in Europe, the Commission said.

The Commission has invested €90 million ($140 million) in IPv6 research. Five years ago it launched an action plan to prepare for IPv6 migration, including the development a large pool of experts with experience in IPv6 deployment.