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NSI is still sole registrar

Nine days after the trial phase began to open up domain name registration, Network Solutions remains the only registrar of Net addresses carrying the ".com" ending.

Nine days after the Commerce Department launched the trial phase of its plan to open up domain name registration, Network Solutions remains the sole registrar of Internet addresses carrying the ".com" ending.

At least two of the five "test-bed" registrars announced two weeks ago still have not obtained the software necessary to access the master registry maintained by NSI, people familiar with the situation said. And none of the companies have said when they will start selling domain names under the shared registration system.

Herndon, Virginia-based See Don Telage Newsmaker NSI, meanwhile, said it has delivered the software to all the new registrars except America Online. NSI added that it is committed to bringing the new registrars online as quickly as possible but confirmed that it has refused to deliver the software until the registrars meet the terms of its contract.

While it is taking the registrars longer than some had expected to get online, NSI and government officials say the schedule for the test-bed period--slated to last until late June--is on track. Still, the delays point up the considerable legal and technical challenges rife in creating new players to dole out the most popular form of Internet addresses.

Since 1993, NSI has held exclusive authority to register domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org," which grace an estimated 50 percent to 75 percent of the world's Internet addresses. Under contract by the federal government, NSI also has run many of the Net's day-to-day operations. As popularity of the Net has exploded, the Commerce Department has searched for a way to privatize administration of the Net and to allow other registrars to profit from the appeal of ".com" domains. Commerce Department officials appointed the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to get the job done.

But agreeing on a transition that is palatable to all the interests involved has proven difficult. Executives from NSI and Commerce Department officials were able to reach an agreement only after extensive negotiations. Now, however, some of the test-bed registrars are having difficulty swallowing some of the terms. One of the chief sticking points is a requirement that the companies obtain $100,000 in insurance that is payable to NSI under what some of the companies describe as very liberal terms.

"The terms are so vague and open-ended that no insurance company is willing to write it," said Ken Stubbs, chairman of CORE (Internet Council of Registrars), one of the five registrars. "NSI has taken all the liability that has previously existed for the registry and passed it back to the registrars."

NSI still has not delivered the software to the Geneva, Switzerland-based nonprofit, said Stubbs, adding that he expected to receive the software soon.

NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy acknowledged that his company requires the registrars to meet all the terms of the contract before they can obtain the software, but he said the policy was designed to protect a crucial public asset.

"This is about the security and stability of the domain name system," O'Shaughnessy said. "This is not something that the Department of Commerce, or ICANN, or NSI takes lightly in any way."

Other sticking points between NSI and the registrars concern a resolution policy for disputed domain names, according to people familiar with the matter. NSI's contract requires the registrars to have an approved plan in place before they can take possession of the software. Some of the registrars did not have such a plan in place when they were notified they had been chosen as test-bed registrars.

But legal hurdles are only the beginning. Even registrars that have taken possession of the software are not saying when they will be up and running. "Right now [our programmers] are trying to sort through the software and work on it," said Sascha Mornell, director of marketing at Register.com, which obtained the software last week. "It's a pretty darn large job."

Other registrars also were unable to provide a firm date when they would be online. AOL declined to give any estimate, and CORE said it hoped to be up and running by the end of May.

O'Shaughnessy agreed that the job of building software from scratch that connects multiple registrars to what is known as the Internet's "root server" has been challenging.

"The development of the shared registration system was a $20 million project that had to develop its own software protocol," he said. "We've developed an entirely new system."

A Commerce Department official said that the test-bed phase was designed to pinpoint exactly the types of legal and technical challenges that have come to light over the past week, and that the agency is confident it will be able to bring new registrars online in late June as planned.

"Commerce is monitoring the implementation carefully to make sure that the test-bed registrars are able to move in quickly and test their systems," the official added.