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Network Solutions' Net plans

The company is rolling out new services as the government prepares to privatize the domain name system.

Network Solutions (NSOL) already runs the world's dominant Net domain name registrar, but now it is racing to roll out new services to stay ahead of the competition.

As previously reported, today the company unveiled the first in a series of products dubbed WorldNic Services. One of the services, Registration Plus, was released today, and is meant to help small and medium-sized businesses register their names. Many of these customers now pay outside companies to register domain names for them, instead of going through the cumbersome process themselves.

"With WorldNIC, a small business can get an Internet identity, enhance its brand, and put its name out on the Internet in minutes," Gabe Battista, chief executive officer of Network Solutions, said in a statement. "The small-business market is where the greatest growth is, and small-business owners are realizing that if they are not using the Internet, they will need to very soon if they are going to stay competitive."

The launch of Registration Plus comes as the government prepares to privatize the domain name system by letting its agreement with Network Solutions run out. Since 1993, the company has held a valuable contract with the National Science Foundation to register the most popular top-level domain names: ".com," ".net," ".org," and ".edu."

Network Solutions' contract runs out in September. Anticipating the expiration date, competitors have been plotting and putting into action their plans to crack into the lucrative and powerful market. Since Network Solutions began doling out the names, the Net has evolved into a global marketplace, with companies establishing valuable brands through coveted Net addresses.

But some fear that if the government doesn't act carefully and isn't clear where and with whom authority rests for resolving domain name issues, the Net could be plunged into chaos. After congressional hearings on the issue last year, the Commerce Department said it would release its recommendations for the transition by November, based on public comments and other factors. But that hasn't happened yet.

According to Becky Burr of the Commerce Department, the report should be out by the end of the month. "Although we're very conscious of the time constraints, we felt it was more important to get it right than to do it quickly. We consulted pretty widely with the Internet community," she said.

Network Solutions, which went public last year, also announced today that it will partner with Inc. Online to help deliver WorldNic Services. Network Solutions will sponsor Inc. Online's Net guide, which shows companies how to develop strategic goals and build an online brand, for example. From Inc.'s site, visitors can link to Registration Plus to register a domain name using a five-step process over the Net or by telephone.

In addition, Network Solutions and Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) struck a deal today that will let businesses use either company's Web site to apply for a D&B D-U-N-S Number--a nine-digit number that identifies companies by location, industry, country, and corporate affiliation. More than 47 million businesses are logged in D&B's D-U-N-S worldwide database.

"Businesses will now have the two important prerequisites in identifying partners with whom they conduct commerce. It's a significant step in developing and securing business-to-business cyberspace," Frank Fitzsimmons, senior vice president of Global Marketing at Dun & Bradstreet, said in a statement.

One group that is waiting on the heels of Network Solutions' contract expiration is the Interim Policy Oversight Committee (IPOC), which is moving ahead with plans to add and register seven new top-level domains.

Network Solutions' WorldNic services are aimed at holding back such competition.

For example, the company is launching a new billing system built to handle complex international transactions as well as prepayments. Network Solutions had come under fire for failing to collect on its bills, but the company contends it already addressed those problems.

Although anyone can go to InterNIC and register the pages themselves (for $100 for two years), the process can be confusing. Plus, it requires the registrant to have a domain name service (DNS) number, which Internet providers will only give out if they are hosting a page.

Through WorldNic, however, Network Solutions promises an easy-to-use interface, and it also will not require people to come with their own DNS numbers. That way, people who just want to reserve a domain name can do so.