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Niue: the myth of the “Wifi Nation”

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2011, 15:38:15 (UTC), Domain Policy

The tiny Pacific island of Niue is commonly referred to as the world’s first and only “Wifi Nation”.

There was a lot of feel-good press coverage back in 2003, when the Massachusetts-based manager of the .nu country-code top-level domain started deploying wireless internet on the island.

NU Domain said at the time that it was “building the world’s first nation-wide wifi Internet access service, all at no cost to the public or the local government” (pdf)

This led to major media outlets, such as the BBC, reporting the line: “The free wi-fi link will be accessible to all of Niue’s 2,000 residents as well as tourists and business travellers.”

This story has remained in the media consciousness to this date, encouraged by the registry.

Just this week, NU Domain’s charitable front operation, the IUSN Foundation, was fluffily claiming that it has provided Niue with “the world’s only nation-wide free Internet”.

Even ICANN’s Kiwi chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, spread the meme during a recent interview (audio), saying Niue had “installed free wifi across the entire island”.

There is just one problem with the “Wifi Nation” story: it’s bollocks.

This is what Niue’s Premier, Toke Talagi, had to say to Australian radio (audio) this week:

The internet services are unreliable, they’re not available throughout the island, and if you do want internet services connected up to your home you have to pay for it. Some people as I understand it have been paying up to $3,000 [$2,400] just for the installation of the wifi.

We’re never quite certain about what that “free” internet services is about, because we’ve had to pay.

According to Talagi, the wifi network provided by IUSN does not cover every village on the island, and users have to pay for it. The free wifi nation is neither free nor nationwide.

Even IUSN, while continuing to make its claims about nationwide wifi, admitted a year ago, seven years after the “wifi nation” claims were first made, that “villagers have been waiting to get online for some time”.

According to Talagi, the lack of reliable internet access is such a big problem that the Niuean government has had to take matters into its own hands and build its own ISP.

It is close to completing its own wired and wireless internet infrastructure, at the cost of $4.8 million, according to reports.

Niue discussed its needs with IUSN in 2009 and 2010, Talagi said, but “they felt they didn’t need to discuss these particular matters, that the services they were providing for us were adequate”.

It appears that IUSN doesn’t even pay to maintain its own equipment. This quote comes from a locally produced newsletter dated April 2009:

While IUSN is committed to provide free internet for its residents it is up to the users of this service to look after and maintain the internet enabling facilities.

That came from a report about residents of one of the island’s villages holding a fund-raiser in order to collect the $2,400 required to fix a wifi mast that had been damaged in a lightning storm (a common problem).

The per capita GDP of Niue, incidentally, is $5,800. Its citizens are not starving, but by the measure of its estimated GDP, about $10 million, it’s one of the poorest nations on the planet, reliant heavily on aid from nearby New Zealand.

According to Talagi and other sources, good internet access is not only required for economic reasons such as boosting the tourism industry.

Fast, reliable connectivity would also enable important human services, such as remote video diagnoses to be performed by overseas medical specialists, which the island lacks.

Niue’s ongoing economic problems come about largely because, other than fishing, it has very few natural resources to exploit.

A notable industry in the past has been the export of postage stamps to overseas collectors.

That business made headlines recently when a stamp was issued, celebrating the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton, which featured a perforation separating bride and groom.

There’s also talk of setting up a casino on the island, to boost revenues.

One asset it does have, at least on paper, is its top-level domain, .nu, which has proven popular in Sweden, where the word “nu” means “now”.

However, other than the lackluster internet connectivity provided by IUSN, Niue apparently does not see any significant revenue from the sale of .nu domain names.

According to IANA records, the .nu domain is officially delegated to the IUSN Foundation, previously known as the Internet Users Society – Niue.

The technical back-end provider is WorldNames Inc, which also operates as a registry/registrar under the brand NU Domain.

IUSN’s contact address is a PO Box in Niue, probably due to the fact that all ccTLD registry operators have to be based in the country they purport to represent.

The IUSN’s domain name, iusn.org, is registered to the same address as WorldNames and NU Domain, in the leafy Boston suburb of Medford, MA.

Most of the company’s business is done in Sweden, where most of its staff are based.

WorldNames has been in control of .nu since 1997, when its founder, Bill Semich, in partnership with a American ex-pat living on the island, managed to acquire the IANA delegation, pre-ICANN.

By several accounts, Niue has been trying to reclaim .nu from Semich for almost as many years.

In 2003, the government hired an American lawyer, Gerald McClurg, to be its representative on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee and attempt to secure a redelegation.

That same year, McClurg made a submission to the International Telecommunications Union (.doc), in which he alleged that the nation was tricked out of its domain:

In 1997 IANA, without the approval of the Niuean Government, delegated the ccTLD for Niue to a businessman, William Semich, who lives in the United States. The advisor to the Government at that time was an ex-peace corp volunteer named Richard Saint Clair. Mr Saint Clair told the Government that the name meant nothing, that it was of no value or significance, and there was nothing that could be done. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Saint Clair then left his post as advisor and joined with Mr Semich in his organization – IUSN. The Government of Niue has been working every since to regain its ccTLD.

The Niuean government has actually passed a law, the Communications Amendment Act 2000, which states: “.nu is a National resource for which the prime authority is the Government of Niue”.

It also established the Niue Information Technology Committee, which “shall be the only designated Registry Manager of the Niue ccTLD .nu.”

Yet, eleven years on, IUSN is still the registry manager for .nu.

Talagi said in his radio interview this week that Niue was preparing to submit a redelegation request to ICANN/IANA in February last year, which is in line with what I was hearing at the time.

I have in my possession documentation from a European domain name registrar, dated March 2010, offering to take over the management of .nu on a not-for-profit basis.

It’s not clear to me whether Niue’s redelegation request is still active. Under current IANA practices, ICANN does not discuss pending ccTLD redelegation requests.

But I suspect IUSN has little interest in handing .nu back to Niue.

While registration data is not easy to come by, the number that has been reported frequently over the years, and as recently as 2008, is 200,000.

At 30 euros ($44) per year for the standard service from NU Domain, that’s close to a $9 million business just from domain registration fees.

That may not be much on the grand scheme of things, but it would certainly be material to a nation so reliant on hand-outs as Niue.

But IUSN is very protective of its asset.

Take a look at the Accountability Framework – one of the methods by which ICANN establishes formal relationships with ccTLD managers – that IUSN and ICANN signed in 2008 (pdf).

ICANN has signed 26 Accountability Frameworks over the last five years. They’re all very similarly worded, but the one it signed with IUSN has a notable addition not found in any of the others.

All ccTLDs’ Accountability Frameworks call for the TLD to be managed “in a manner that is consistent with the relevant laws of [insert country name]”.

But the .nu agreement is the only one to also make a specific reference to RFC 1591 and ICP-1, two rules dating from the 1990s that govern how ccTLDs are redelegated from one organization to another.

While ICP-1 gives governments a significant voice in redelegation requests, both documents state that IANA should only redelegate a TLD when both the winning and losing parties agree to the transfer.

The only notable exception to the rule is when the incumbent registry manager has been found to have “substantially misbehaved”, which I understand to be quite a high bar.

With that in mind, it’s far from obvious whether Niue stands any chance of getting its ccTLD redelegated to an approved registry any time soon.

According to a recent report (pdf) from ICANN’s ccNSO, IANA has redelegated ccTLDs in cases where the losing registry fought the decision, but its procedures for doing so are utterly opaque.

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Comments (9)

  1. Kevin,

    I hardly know where to begin to correct this ingenuous regurgitation of Niuean government FUD.

    First, governments don’t own ccTLDs by right. Of course they claim they do, but they don’t. If they did, we wouldn’t have an Internet, because governments would never have allowed ICANN to exist if they had a choice, we’d all be paying extra for emails across international borders, overseen by the ITU. The Internet was and still largely is a network of private networks, not a toy of governments.

    Second, the accountability framework that was signed by ICANN and .NU is not the only one like that; Paul Twomey, former GAC Chair before being ICANN CEO and an eager appeaser of governments, was pretty much forced to sign it because he had already signed the exact same one with another ccTLD.

    ICANN in its early days tried to eviscerate RFC 1591, which set out the duties of TLD operators. For its simplicity, its wisdom, and its vision of service, it is still the seminal document for the domain name space. ICANN issued ICP-1 and ICP-2, in which it claimed to be channeling the recently-departed spirit of Jon Postel, who wrote RFC 1591, to say the exact opposite — giving all kinds of powers to governments. It then used these powers to redelegate, and allow government takeovers of, among other ccTLDs, .PN, .PM, .MQ, .GP etc (there are others). These they shut down, despite their having been quite active before. You should read the recent scathing ccTLD report on redelegations of ccTLDs from the ccNSO.

    The fact is that .NU is paying for 24/365 satellite communications to Niue, for everyone there — not just one library in some Potempkin village. The government never did this, and now that it’s done, they are refusing to allow its upkeep in order to make .NU look bad. This fellow McClurg is a paid advocate of the current Niuean government and never misses a chance to spread FUD.

    Unfortunately, Kevin, you believed a lot of this nonsense. It’s easy to reach Bill Semich, he’s an active ICANN participant. You might also have spoken to other members of the APTLD or other Asia-Pacific Internet organizations. If you had, you might have heard another and altogether different point of view.

    You might also have inquired into how much of the considerable subventions the Niuean government receives from New Zealand actually finds its way into the hands of its citizens, as opposed to the pockets of government officials. Or have spoken to other entrepreneurs who have tried to set up tourist facilities (hotels etc) in Niue, only to have been driven out by government greed and corruption, abandoning their investment to government ownership, or even worse, personal ownership by government officials.

    Have a look at this lovely house in New Zealand bought for a Niuean politician for a princely sum, and read the world-weary comments by those who know about how things work in Niue.

    Or you could have found out that Mr. Talagi, no doubt from an excess of public-spiritedness, personally owns and operates runs a travel agency, car rental agency, and a motel. In an incredible coincidence, his government is now selling special stamps to promote tourism to Niue.

    When you say ICANN redelegation procedures are opaque you are right. The rest of the article? Not so much.

  2. […] The tiny Pacific island of Niue is commonly referred to as the world’s first and only Wifi Nation. There was a lot of feel-good press coverage back in. Read the original: Niue: the myth of the “Wifi Nation” | DomainIncite – Domain Name … […]

  3. theo says:

    Thanks for the comment Antony.

  4. Pär Brumark says:

    Great article about a sad domain fraud on the higher level.

    Very interesting that the comment above (so falsely critical to Niue) is written by a close business partner of the very Bill Semich who happens to be the “owner” (a very unwelcome private profiteer) of the ccTLD .nu.

    About Anthony Van Couvering and Bill Semich: http://enotes.com/topic/.nyc

  5. Fred Hunieanki says:

    First and foremost,

    A wonderful article published on a tiny little nation, with some facts that could either be taken in good faith and taken on a whim, but none the less a wonderful read, and thank you for shining some light upon this little situation.

    To start of, I am of Niuean decent and have traveled there regularly. I was born in Australia and currently study at Sydney Uni.

    I would like to touch base, on this article about a couple of finer details that are missed by the foresight of everyday life in a developed country.

    Niue.

    Has a maximum of about 1600 (June, 2013) people currently living on the island.

    Around 40% of these people have only made it as far as New-Zealand.

    One boat a week depending on weather, delivers the main living necessities to the island. (Food, Toilet paper, Petrol etc.).

    The island is a Coral Atoll, meaning the entire island. Yes the entire island is made up of Coral.

    The island, stops on Sunday to follow there religious beliefs.

    There is little to no agriculture. Combined with the tropical conditions (80% Humidity, 35-45 degree days) and no natural soil, you will be lucky to grow grass.

    It is by every means, a non-developed country or a third world country, but to say a poor country, I beg to differ.

    Niues beauty comes from being a world a way.

    From growing up in a very developed city and spending bits of my life in various countries such as Dubai, Singapore and the United States. To arriving upon an island in where as you land there’s no terminal, just a building where you walk through. Declare anything? If you want, they take your word as assurance.

    The isolation of the island to the outside world is apparently obvious, whilst you drive down the dirt road which only has room for one car, where it is a custom to wave at the opposite driver (A sign of acknowledgement and greetings that you are sharing the road with another).

    The islands wealth, comes from being its self. Isolated, Un-developed. FREE.

    Check it out yourself, I could go on for days:
    http://www.niueisland.com/

    Okay, back to this article.

    To put this into context, Niue’s FREE Wifi runs at about an average of 24Kbps (3kb/s). In which you have to be in range of one of the wifi masts to be able to connect to the wifi. That being said, with most of the masts put near main Villages the more people connected to that wifi connection the slowly the connection becomes.

    So from going form 25Mbps to 24kbps, 80% of the people on Niue don’t know the better.

    This is where the isolation and the trustworthy nature of this little islands culture backfires.

    The Niuean government is made up of the generation that has missed the technology boom.

    It is easy to see how the trustworthy nature of the Niuean government put their faith behind “Richard Saint Clair”.

    To my main issue, Anthony Van Couvering.

    Disgusted, appalled and bewildered on how ignorantly bliss you are to the facts of a small government, governing over MAX. 1600 people. There is possibly more people shopping at your local shopping center then there is in total on this small tiny island.

    To use terms such as FUD, Potempkin and even questioning the validity of the Premier Talangi.

    “Niuean government FUD…” Ignorance at it’s most. What would the Niuean government gain by spreading Fear, Uncertainity and Doubt to a mere 1600 people.
    To even bring it up twice within your same argument, your basically reinforcing are ignorance and stupidity. The majority of people of Niue, Have only started to get accustom to the internet, as there secondary source to the outside world. (First, being the radio, television and Overseas telecommunication).

    Secondly to say the WiFi is for everyone, then to turn around and reflect it back saying “not just one library in a potemkin villae…”.

    For your information, the island does not have a library. Put that into context, when you think about the island’s size and the governments handle over it’s people.

    Again, just plain ignorance hindering on the verge of down right stupidity. Thing’s that could have been left out of your argument if, it had any credibility or truthful sustainability.

    Thirdly, the constant verbal diarrhea you keep pushing upon the Niuean Government. “Subventions from New-Zealand…” The Niuean government lives of the interest of the money it is currently sitting on which i believe is only $6,000,000. The government has no debits and does not tax there people. As most transactions on the island are done in cash as there’s only one bank. (Again put that into context when, criticizing the government)

    Fourthly, You mention entrepreneurs. How many tourist’s visit the island a year… Maximum 800 people.
    What are the main things to do on the Island? Fish, Snorkel, Sailing and Hunting.
    How long does it take to drive around the island? 40 Minutes.
    Besides, the Islands One Hotel that the majority of tourists stay at. What other connections to the outside world let alone technology do they have in Niue?
    How many entrepreneurs will tell you, that there brilliant idea failed when they cross referenced the numbers?
    “…been driven out by government greed and corruption”
    Ignorance, comparing Niue’s government to big major powers around the world without doing any decent research.

    Fith, and last point. in Anthony’s yes i will say it. Ignorant, Desperate, down right ludicrous response to this article is the fact, that he stoop’s down to the level of belittling Niue’s premiere.
    “…Personally owns and operates a travel agency, car rental and a motel.”

    For someone that has never been to the island sure knows a lot about it’s political members. Ignorance, from a modern day society outlook.

    Travel agency. Helps economic tourism, helps the native’s get to New-Zealand. Profitable? New-Zealand Airlines are the only airline that fly’s to Niue. Yes you guessed it, the travel agency only accommodates to New-Zealand and the prices are determined by Air-NewZealand.

    Car Rental! 800 divided by 52 = 15 tourist’s per week that arrive on Niue who need a car. I think Anthony forgot to mention there is also 16 other car rental places on the island. 15 divided by 16 = 0 .9 people a week would rent a car from his business! Outstanding!

    Motel Company. Niue is full of empty house’s family house’s. The chances of a tourist going to his very own motel rather then the only Hotel on Niue.

    The number’s speak for themselves. In terms of Anthony’s credibility though it should either be taken with a grain of salt or passed as an ignorant attempt at a smear campaign.

    The way of life and traditional culture of the Niuean people are a unique find in this world, over run by people such as Anthony who will try any way to boost there own self esteem and put there two cent’s worth.

    To the people who come across this article, Niue is a beautiful place with beautiful people. If you ever have a chance. Go check it out.

    Mr. Hunieanki

  6. Miss Jay says:

    I’m from this tiny island and I assure you it only costs $400 to install this wifi disk and thats including labour. It’s $25 to register your device if you rather use the wifi disk everyone is using, which is also not a problem.

    Thanks!

  7. kolrew says:

    It is partially true that govts. don’t own Internet. For example if You want to register .fr site some year ago You MUST have Your business registered or live in France. This is because of French govt., law and their pressure. Because the union European law requires identical treating of business in union countries(and France is part of it) You MUST have a business in Europe to register in .fr domain. Niue case is a good example of how a nation can profit from domain. If it is true about this 10 m$ they can for example provide really totally free Internet(not 25$ Internet) just from domain registration income.

  8. European says:

    The point and moral disaster about Niue and .nu, is that four-five people (from Sweden, US and NZ) has during about 17 years made hundreds millions of NZ dollars selling .nu domains in Europe – money that has not in anyway contributed to Niue´s highly needed Internet infrastructure. They have spent less than some very, very few percentage of that money on a very limited Wifi system on Niue (and those few money has been spent just to spread a myth about “the free Wifi nation” in media, and to not loose the IANA/ICANN “right” to own/administrate the country domain .nu). The standard of the Niuean Internet could have been in world class – and can still become if the money went to investments instead of straight into the pockets of a few within IUSN. Facts: There are currently about 250 000 .nu domains sold yearly (majority in Sweden). The price of those has during this period been about 55 NZD each a year (low estimate 233 570 000 NZ Dollars in all). This money has enden up in a large corporation based in Massachusetts USA (Worldnames INC, Owner: Bill Semich) and extreme money for the people within IUSN (Per Darnell, Staffourd Guest, Richard St Clair). There is not any national domain example in the world even closly comparable to the .nu in the regards of how a few foreign people has exploited this kind of figures profits from a national domain in another country without giving back even scratches to the nation (these scratches consists of are a very, very poor standard wifi network with low bandwitdh on Niue). But it would be great to let some outside, neutral accountants get all the figures and see the truth for the people of Niue to see.

  9. Pär Brumark says:

    Reply to “Korew”: Anyone (in any part of the world) can register .se, .nl, .dk and most European national domains. The fact list is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Internet_top-level_domains . Further, domains in for example Europe are with a few exeptions runned as non-gov and non-profit foundations that benefits the local internet – not like IUS-N who on the surface is a non-profit foundation, but where the money goes to a US company structure. IUS-N and Worldnames refuses supervision regarding where the money ends up (but hardly in Niue). The estimate of huge profits in a previous post does however look like the ones me and others has concluded as rather correct. It would be great if the ended up in Niue and not the US so Niue easily could get the same Internet standard as for ex. NZ (and for free).

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