Domain registration test phase extended

NSI and the Commerce Department agree to lengthen the testing of a competitive system for registering the most popular form of domain names by five weeks, and to allow another 52 accredited registrars to join in the trial.

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Network Solutions and the Commerce Department have agreed to extend the testing of a competitive system for registering the most popular form of domain names by another five weeks, and to allow another 52 accredited registrars to join in the trial.

NSI, in marathon negotiations with the Commerce Department for the last week, also agreed to temporarily lift restrictions on use of its Whois database, which indexes contact information for millions of Internet addresses. Ownership of the database, which NSI compiled under an exclusive arrangement with the federal government, has been one of the chief sticking points between the parties.

The two parties remain divided on other issues, and NSI said it was relaxing the restrictions only while negotiations continued.

Until recently, NSI had sole authority to register domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org," which account for an estimated 75 percent of the world's domain names. Under a plan being carried out of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), registration of those domains is being opened up to any accredited registrar. NSI, however, will maintain control of the master registry of addresses through September 2000.

After being extended twice before, the "test bed" phase of the shared registration system had been set to expire today. During the trial period, in place since April 26, five registrars were permitted to test the system. Under today's agreement, the test has been extended until September 10, and an additional 52 accredited registrars will be permitted to participate.

The additional time will allow the two sides to resolve a set of contentious issues that so far have held up full-scale competition. Differences include the price NSI may charge competitors for access to the registry, and terms of an agreement NSI requires the new registries to sign in order to tap into the system.

Under an interim agreement, NSI receives $9 per year for every domain name registered, a price critics say is excessive. NSI's registrar agreement has also come under fire, with critics saying it puts new registrars at a competitive disadvantage. NSI, meanwhile, says the price is reasonable compensation and agreement terms are reasonable in light of the $15 million the company has invested in the shared registration system.

Yet another difference, concerning ownership of the Whois, has also sharply divided the two parties. NSI says a cooperative agreement it won in 1992 gives it ownership of all intellectual property arising out of the company's registration services. The Herndon, Virginia, company, which recently unveiled a "Dot Com Directory" designed to hold on to its large customer base, contends that the agreement bars competitors from using the Whois to build comparable products.

NSI today agreed to lift those restrictions "pending resolution of all outstanding issues." The agreement permits NSI to restore the Whois restrictions if it does not reach a final agreement with the Commerce Department.

It is unclear how quickly the new registrars authorized to begin testing the shared system could be up and running. Many of them must still sign NSI's agreement and meet other requirements. NSI also said publicly that it may be able to connect only five registrars per month to the system, another issue that may slow down full-scale competiton.

NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy, however, said he was optimistic NSI could bring new registrars online much more quickly. "The process has become a lot more expedited," he said.

Both O'Shaughnessy and a Commerce Department official said the two sides would continue to negotiate a final resolution.