As the new year approaches, players who want to compete with
the world's dominant domain name registrar, Network Solutions, are still
waiting for crucial information that could stand between them and lucrative
Network Solutions (NSI) currently runs
the allocation of top-level domains for the U.S. government and must open
its coveted domain name registration base to select competitors by March.
Potential registrars want to know which five companies initially will be
picked and accredited to compete with NSI; and when those newly anointed
registrars will get the precious technical specifications they need to tap
into Network Solutions' domain name registration database--the process that
makes a Net address officially live on the global network.
The answers are mapped out by Commerce Department agreements with Network
Solutions and the Internet Corporation for
Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit recognized by the U.S.
government to set up the new registrar accreditation system as well as guidelines for governance of the Net's anatomy.
But critical steps in the process already are a month behind schedule, and some hopeful registrars worry they won't be ready to compete when the time comes.
"Network Solutions released the software specifications to Commerce, but they are confidential. How can we build a system if the requirements are confidential?" asked Richard Forman, CEO of Register.com, a company founded in 1994
that has registered more than 94,000 domain names with Network Solutions on
behalf of its customers.
Register.com, along with many other Net service providers, is eager to get one
step closer to the domain name pot of gold by getting direct access to Network
Solutions' ".com," ".org," and ".net" registration databases. Once it does so, it can
compete directly with Network Solutions instead of acting as a middleman.
The Commerce Department is banking on ICANN to turn potential registrars' dreams into reality,
but the process is very politicized as a result of the international players and the high stakes involved.
By December 1, ICANN was supposed to have appointed a technical advisory committee to work with Network Solutions on opening its registration process
to competitors. But ICANN wasn't even recognized by the government until
November 25, so the ten-person committee has yet to be announced and
Commerce is still sitting on the software specifications it received in
Commerce acknowledges that the historic process of privatizing oversight of the Net's addressing system, subsequently ending the government's exclusive contract with Network Solutions, is behind schedule. But the agency says it nevertheless will proceed as planned.
"We do have the specifications and we are reviewing them. We recognized
ICANN 25 days late, so they are naturally behind the ball," a Commerce
Department official said. "My sense is that the committee will be [announced] the second week of January."
And when the specifications are ready to be handed off to new registrars, the online community doesn't yet know which companies will become new registrars. It is clear, however, that only five companies will get a head start.
Network Solutions' agreement
with the government, which lays out its responsibilities during the transition and extends its contract until 2000, states that five trial registrars will be selected and accredited by "NEWCO," the term used in Network Solutions' agreement to identify the government-recognized transition authority.
Selection of the registrars could be delayed for several reasons, however.
For example, ICANN is not yet named in Network Solutions' agreement, a detail ICANN says has to be hammered out before the committee and the five new registrars can be selected.
"We have no legal standing until Commerce formally issues a notice substituting NEWCO for ICANN in the agreement with Network Solutions," said Michael Roberts, interim CEO of ICANN. "When they get that squared away, we are in the process of picking the committee. We're waiting on the government. They told us they are working on it."
Although ICANN hasn't nailed down exactly how they are going to pick the five registrars, the Commerce official said, "I think we are still on for March."
In addition, ICANN's initial board members still are formulating accreditation requirements, and still are working on things like adding new top-level domains
and setting up a membership base that will elect an international board to
oversee the Net's underpinnings in 2000--when the transition process is set
Forman of Register.com says those five spots are coveted, but that there
are other uncertainties.
"There is no official way to apply," he said.
In Net time, a head start could go a long way. "Without access to that
database you can't compete," Forman said. "Once they roll it out, we'll
still need time to build a system to match it. Network Solutions has
everything to gain if this is dragged out."
If all goes as planned, by the end of March the five competitors will start
registering domain names by tapping into Network Solutions' system. Ideally,
prices should go down for registrants because the cost will drop for companies like
Register.com. Registrants now have to pay $119 for a two-year registration. If a trial period for the selected five registrars goes off without affecting the Net's stability, Network Solutions will by July 1999 give any accredited registrar "equivalent access" to the "shared registration system."
Network Solutions, for its part, insists that it is not thwarting the process and is ready
"When we get a list of five accredited registrars, then we will make
available to them, under a nondisclosure agreement, the specifications they
need to build their systems," said Don Telage, senior vice president at
"After the trial, assuming we don't have any nightmares, we'll open it up
to an orderly transition to any number of registrars," he added. "We are
working actively to make this happen in an orderly and stable way--there is
no game going on here. This is serious work, it takes time, money, and