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Registries Vie for .Net Domain

Internet registries around the world are preparing to submit their bids on one of the oldest, and most popular, domain extensions.

The deadline for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (ICANN) request for proposals (RFP) for .net is Jan. 18, 2005, at which time an as yet unnamed third-party technical review board will debate which registry is best suited to take management of .net when VeriSign's contract expires on June 30, 2005.

ICANN plans to announce the winning bid in March, 2005.

Frontrunners are already emerging. VeriSign will seek to re-establish its .net ownership for another six years, but other well-established top-level domain (TLD) registries will bid on the extension: DENIC, the registry operator for .de, the German country code TLD (ccTLD), and Afilias, the registry operator for .info.

VeriSign is relying on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" factor. With seven years at 100 percent uptime and an investment of a couple hundred million dollars into the infrastructure, Tom Galvin, VeriSign vice president of public affairs, said the company's earned the right to keep .net going forward.

He said .net is not like the other TLDs, because when it was first envisioned as an extension, .net was never intended for commercial entities, but as a transport layer. Thus, while many of today's Internet properties, like whitehouse.gov or walmart.com, operate on that common domain address, their name servers reside on .net.

"Overall, you have about 30 percent of e-commerce that is relying on .net," Galvin said. "So while it's a smaller TLD when it comes to names, it's every bit as significant as .com when it comes to commerce and communications."

The migration of .net from one registry to another is a primary concern for registrars like Register.com. Jordyn Buchanan, director of policy at Register.com, said it doesn't really matter who takes over .net management as long as there are no problems switching the registry databases over to the new company if VeriSign loses out on its bid.

"Migration is the number one, number two and number three issue for us, because it affects us as a business," he said. "But more importantly, it affects how people use the Internet. If you think about .net, there's a lot of very crucial infrastructure servers -- name servers that serve thousands or millions of other domain names -- and if any of those were to be impacted by the migration, it could have a pretty significant effect on the day-to-day operations of the Internet. I can't emphasize enough how important that element of any bid is going to be."

One quite capable company outside VeriSign is DENIC, the German-based coalition of registrars that manages the .de ccTLD.

DENIC, a non-profit cooperative of registrars out of Frankfurt, Germany, has jumped head-and-shoulders over its competition in the domain arena. According to a recent report by VeriSign, 8 million domain names are registered to .de, which accounts for 12 percent of the world's total domain registrations, behind only .com.

That's double the number of registrations of its closest ccTLD competitor -- .uk at 6 percent -- and nearly as much as all the other ccTLD names combined, which accounts for 20 percent. It's also larger than the number of .net names out there, 5 million, which nets a comparatively smaller -- though third-largest overall -- 8 percent.

Sabine Dolderer, director of DENIC's executive board, said its size and the need for more competition among registries make it a viable contender for .net.

"If you look at what ICANN is looking for and the community is looking for, there's something with having an incumbent operating a lot of the domain space, and there's a lot of inflexibility in that," she said. "What ICANN is looking for is somebody who is technically capable to do it and that is something DENIC has proved over the last 10 years."

Afilias is a long-odds favorite to take over .net. ICANN awarded Afilias the .info registry contract back in 2001. As one of the first outside of the seven original TLDs -- .com, .net, .org, .mil, .edu, .int, and .gov, the company had a rough start.

Afilias was beset with troubles from the beginning, mainly in the form of technical glitches that downed its service. It also had trouble with its policies, such as its early registration program. Twenty-five percent of the names reserved for companieswith legitimate claims to them had lost out to cyber squatters .

Those problems, which were later resolved, were valuable learning experiences for the company and should prove a boon to its .net bid, said Roland LaPlante, vice president and chief marketing officer at Dublin, Ireland-based Afilias.

"The extent that the independent reviewers delve into that and really understand it, I think that's going to say more positive things about Afilias than can be said about the other competitors," he said.

Afilias might also have an ace in the hole -- its part in the migration of .org from VeriSign to the Public Interest Registry (PIR) in 2003. The company provides these sub-contractor services to not only PIR, but eight ccTLD registry operators. They are the name registry services providers for several current TLD nominations going through the ICANN process, such as .mobi, .asia and .xxx.

"Frankly, no one else in the industry has the kind of transition experience that Afilias has," LaPlante said.

What plans VeriSign, Afilias, DENIC and other .net registry wannabes have in mind for the domain extension is a closely held secret within the corporate walls. None of the three interviewed would talk about details surrounding their organizations' proposals and will most likely wait until the week before the Jan. 18 deadline to file.

Unlike the process for many RFPs where all the bids are held confidential until they are all submitted, DENIC's Dolderer said, ICANN posts the bids to its Web site for all to see. No one, she said, is going to give up a competitive advantage by posting soon enough for others to tailor their own proposal.

Each .net proposal will be critiqued on a variety of functional areas like: ICANN policy compliance, equal access for registrars, operations, financial strength, technical competence and migration plan. And soon enough, we'll know what they were hiding in their proposals.