The Internet's key oversight agency has outlined a plan for testing domain names entirely in non-English characters, bringing closer to reality a change highly sought by Asian and Arab Internet users.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers announced a tentative timetable Tuesday that calls for tests to begin in the second half of the year.

The tests would help ensure that introducing non-English suffixes wouldn't wreck a global addressing system that millions of Internet users rely upon every day.

The Internet's main traffic directories know only 37 characters: the 26 letters of the Latin script used in English, the 10 numerals and a hyphen.

Constraining non-English speakers to those characters is akin to forcing all English-speakers to type domain names in Chinese. As a result, ICANN has faced pressures to adopt technical tricks that let the directories understand other languages.

In fact, some aren't waiting. China already has set up its own ".com" top-level domain in Chinese within its borders.

Such efforts risk fracturing the Internet, such that the same address could reach two different sites depending on a user's location.

Even if the tests are successful, though, several policy questions remain.

For example, should the incumbent operator of global domains like ".com" automatically get a Chinese version, or does that more properly goes to China, as its government insists?

Resolving those questions could take time, and domain names entirely in another language likely won't begin appearing until next year or even later.