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NSI domain slowdown persists

The gatekeeper for popular Net addresses is continuing to experience problems with new orders, customers say.

Network Solutions, the government-appointed gatekeeper for the most popular Internet addresses, is continuing to experience problems processing new orders, according to customers, who complained this weekend they were unable to register new domain names.

As previously reported, the most commonly reported problem is a delay in the time it takes Network Solutions to respond to requests for new domain names. Whereas in the past it has taken 2 to 12 hours for NSI's "autoresponder" to confirm that a request has been received, complaints made on Internet newsgroups and elsewhere say it now takes days to send many acknowledgments.

What's more, NSI appears to be losing orders, causing at least two customers to claim they were unable to obtain domain names even though they registered them first. Other complaints--some of which come from competitors of NSI--claim that the Herndon, Virginia, company's Worldnic site and its accompanying phone service are telling customers that domain names are available even when a search on the Whois directory on Internet names shows that the sites are already registered.

Acknowledging problems, NSI spokesman Chris Clough blamed the backlog on a record number of registrations and a rash of fraudulent registrations sent via email. Clough on Friday said he hoped to have the problem fixed over the weekend. According to some customers interviewed today, however, the problems are continuing. An NSI spokesman did not return numerous calls seeking comment yesterday.

NSI recently announced that it registered 1.9 million Internet addresses in 1998, nearly twice the number it registered the previous year. The influx of "spammed" registrations started after the first of the year, straining the company's already taxed networks, Clough said.

NSI's problems come at a crucial time, as the company is losing its U.S. government-granted monopoly in registering domain names ending in ".com," ".net," ".org," and ".edu." Beginning later this year, NSI will be forced to compete with other registry services for the first time in its five-year history as a registrar.

To prepare for competition, NSI has been feverishly striking marketing deals with Internet companies in the United States and overseas and upgrading its own technical infrastructure. Recent partners include Netscape Communications and Yahoo.

Two weeks ago, NSI announced a two-for-one stock split for its high-flying stock. On the same day, the company announced a secondary offering of 4.58 million shares that could raise as much as $700 million.

During random visits to NSI's Web site on four separate occasions last week, CNET News.com received "internal error" notifications, saying registration requests could not be completed. Customers also complain that NSI's telephone support line has been busy for hours on end. Calls made repeatedly by CNET News.com starting this morning received a busy signal.

The problem was creating frustration among customers, according to people contacted by CNET News.com, as well as posts made over the past few days on the mailing list maintained by the North American Network Operators Group.

"For those of you who haven't noticed, Network Solutions has been demonstrating their complete and total lack of competence over the past ten hours, AGAIN," one subscriber to the list wrote.

Another subscriber, claiming to have been briefed by NSI's management, blamed the backlog on "speculators," who are flooding the registry requests for popular domain names that are on hold but are expected to be available soon. "These speculators are sending registration templates for hundreds of domains every second, going far beyond [NSI's] capacity," the anonymous post claimed, adding that NSI provided the information to "premier partners" but not to anyone else.

In an apparent attempt to combat the speculators, NSI today stopped disclosing in its Whois database whether domain names are on hold or when the address was originally registered. NSI deems a site on hold when it has been suspended for any number of reasons, such as nonpayment of fees. The information--which, until today, had been a part of the database for years--makes it easier for people to guess when a popular site that is on hold--for example e-shopping.com--will become available.

For most customers, NSI's problems mean they have to wait longer than usual to get orders processed. But in some cases, the backlog appears to have caused NSI to lose requests for domain names.

"Two days ago, I attempted to register 'injustice.com' through the Internic's Web form," a post made Friday on the inet-access listserve complains. "Today I notice the domain has been taken. I had been watching this domain for some time, and believe I was the first to register it, but THEIR email system delayed it."

Another customer claimed his request in late November for "onlinehelp.net" went unanswered for weeks. When he finally received a reply from NSI on December 26, he said, he was informed the site had been registered three weeks earlier.

Other NSI customers said requests emailed to NSI over the past week have been returned with the words "unknown mailer error" in the subject header. One of the customers, a partner at a service that competes with NSI called DomainRegistry.com, said the return email means those requests are not being processed, allowing competitors who register the same name to get it first.

The individual, who asked that his name not be used, added that there also appear to be discrepancies in NSI's database of registered names. For example, he said, the directory indicated that the domain name "powernz.net" was still available, even though he had registered the site earlier. A query made by CNET News.com Friday confirmed that the address was available.

NSI's backlog is also making it difficult for people who wish to switch hosting providers for their Internet sites. In the past, these changes were carried out within a day or two. According to one NSI customer, however, a request made on January 4 to change hosting providers has yet to be processed.

NSI's Clough acknowledged that the company's email confirmation system has been slower than usual but declined to discuss any other problems specifically. NSI's perceived failure to come clean about its technical problems has been a major criticism on mailing lists, as well as in interviews with NSI customers.

"The thing that's surprising me is they haven't posted anything on their Web site, so the average person would have absolutely no idea that there is a problem," said Jeff Wasilko, a Boston domain name consultant. "The first step is to admit they have a problem."