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 September.
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 to end.
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 for competition.
"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 Network Solutions.
"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 people."