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Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.

Neustar’s .co contract up for grabs

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2019, Domain Registries

Colombia is looking for a registry operator for its .co ccTLD.

If you’re interested, and you’re reading this before noon on Wednesday November 6 and you’re at ICANN 66 in Montreal, hightail it to room 514A for a presentation from the Colombian government that will be more informative than this blog post.

Hurry! Come on! Move it!

The Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MinTIC) has published a set of documents describing some of the plan to find a potentially new home for .co.

There doesn’t appear to be a formal RFP yet, but I gather one is imminent.

What the documents do tell us is that Neustar’s contract to run .co expires in February, and that MinTIC is looking into the possibility of a successor registry.

Currently, .co is delegated to .CO Internet, a Colombian entity that relaunched the TLD in 2010 and was acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014.

But under a law passed earlier this year, it appears as if MinTIC is taking over policy management for .co and may therefore seek IANA redelegation.

There’s no indication I could see that there’s a plan to reverse the policy of allowing anyone anywhere in the world to register a .co, indeed MinTIC seems quite proud of its international success.

The documents also give us the first glimpse for years into .co’s growth.

It had 2,374,430 names under management in September, after a couple of years of slowing growth. The documents state that .co had an average of 323,590 new regs per year for the first seven years, which has since declined to an average of 32,396.

.co is not the cheapest TLD out there, renewing at around $25 at the low end.

Form an orderly queue: New Zealand wants a new back-end

Kevin Murphy, October 23, 2019, Domain Registries

New Zealand is looking to possibly outsource its .nz ccTLD registry back-end for the first time, and has invited interested parties to get in touch.

Registry manager InternetNZ today published a request for expressions of interest in what it’s calling its “registry replacement project”.

It won’t be as straightforward as most registry migrations, as .nz is currently running essentially two different back-ends.

Today, about 65% of its registrations are based on an outdated custom Shared Registration System protocol, with the remainder on the industry standard Extensible Provisioning Protocol.

The proportion of registrars running SRS versus EPP is roughly the same, with about 65% on SRS, according to the REOI.

But the registry wants to get rid of SRS altogether, forcing all SRS-only registrars to adopt the EPP, and the new back-end provider will have to support this transition.

While registrars always have a bit of implementation work to do when a TLD changes back-ends, it’s not usually as complicated as adopting a completely different protocol with which they may not be unfamiliar.

So the risk of issues arising during the eventual handover — which will probably take a bit longer than usual — is probably a bit higher than usual.

But .nz is an attractive TLD. At the start of the month, it had 711,945 domains under management, a pretty good penetration on a per-capita basis when compared to the biggest ccTLDs.

It’s in the top 50 of the 1,338 TLDs for which I have data.

The deadline for responses to the REOI is November 29, a little over a month from now, InternetNZ said.

The registry is taking briefings at ICANN 66 in Montreal from November 2, and the following week in New Zealand.

UPDATE: This article originally stated that InternetNZ has decided to outsource its back end. In fact, outsourcing is just one of a number of options.

.blog registry handover did NOT go smoothly

Kevin Murphy, August 29, 2019, Domain Registries

The transition of .blog between registry back-end providers ended up taking six times longer than originally planned, due to “a series of unforeseen issues”.

Registry Knock Knock Whois There today told registrars that the move from Nominet to CentralNic took 18 hours to complete, far longer than the two to three hours anticipated.

An “unexpected database error” was blamed at one point for the delay, but KKWT said it is still conducting a post-mortem to figure out exactly what went wrong.

During the downtime, .blog registrations, renewals, transfers and general domain management at the registry level would not have been possible.

DNS resolution was not affected, so registrants of .blog domains would have been able to use their web sites and email as usual.

The migration, which covered roughly 200,000 domains, wrapped up at around 0800 UTC this morning. It seems engineers at the two back-end providers, both based in the UK, will have been working throughout the night to fix the issues.

KKWT reported the new CentralNIC EPP back-end functioning as expected but that several days of “post-migration clean-up” are to be expected.

Eighteen hours is more than the acceptable 14 hours of monthly downtime for EPP services under ICANN’s standard Registry Agreement, but below the 24 hours of weekly downtime at which emergency measures kick in.

CentralNic already handles very large TLDs, including .xyz, but I believe this is the largest incoming migration it’s handled to date.

KKWT is owned by Automattic, the same company as WordPress.com.

Mystery .vu registry revealed

Kevin Murphy, August 13, 2019, Domain Registries

Neustar has been selected as the back-end domain registry operator for the nation of Vanuatu.

The company, and the Telecommunications Radiocommunications and Broadcasting Regulator, announced the appointment, which came after a competitive tender process between nine competing back-end providers, last night.

The ccTLD is .vu.

It’s unrestricted, with no local presence requirements, and currently costs $50 per year if you buy directly from the registry, Telecom Vanuatu Ltd (TVL).

Unusually, if you show up at TVL’s office in Vanuatu capital Port Vila, you can buy a domain for cash. I’ve never heard of that kind of “retail” domain name option before.

A handful of international registrars also sell the domains marked up, generally to over the $80 mark.

TVL was originally the sponsor of the ccTLD, but ICANN redelegated it to TRBR in March after Vanuatu’s government passed a law in 2016 calling for redelegation.

Under the deal, Neustar will take over the registry function from TVL after its 24 years in charge, bringing the .vu option to hundreds of other registrars.

Most registrars are already plugged in to Neustar, due to its operation of .us, .biz and .co. It also recently took over India’s .in.

There’s no public data on the number of domains under management, but Vanuatu is likely to have a much smaller footprint that Neustar’s main ccTLD clients.

It’s quite a young country, gaining independence from France and the UK in 1980, a Pacific archipelago of roughly 272,000 people.

Neustar expects the transition to its back-end to be completed September 30.

Nic.br wins dot-brand from Afilias

Brazilian registry Nic.br has won its sixth gTLD client.

It’s taking on the dot-brand back-end business of Natura, a cosmetics company based in its home town of Sao Paulo.

The .natura gTLD was previously managed by Afilias.

I can’t imagine it’s a hugely valuable deal.

Natura has only a few domains in its zone. It’s using global.natura as a portal to its various national ccTLD sites and app.natura as a gateway to app stores where its mobile app can be obtained.

It’s the latest gTLD to change back-ends in the current wave of new gTLD rejiggering to come about as contracts negotiated during the 2012 application round start to expire.

Nic.br also runs the dot-brands .uol and .globo, the small city TLD .rio, the unlaunched generics .bom (means “good” in Portuguese) and .final, and of course its original ccTLD, .br.

Afilias sues India to block $12 million Neustar back-end deal

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2018, Domain Registries

Afilias has sued the Indian government to prevent it awarding the .in ccTLD back-end registry contract to fierce rival Neustar.

The news emerged in local reports over the weekend and appears to be corroborated by published court documents.

According to Moneycontrol, the National Internet Exchange of India plans to award the technical service provider contract to Neustar, after over a decade under Afilias, but Afilias wants the deal blocked.

The contract would also include some 15 current internationalized domain name ccTLDs, with another seven on the way, in addition to .in.

That’s something Afilias reckons Neustar is not technically capable of, according to reports.

Afilias’ lawsuit reportedly alleges that Neustar “has no experience or technical capability to manage and support IDNs in Indian languages and scripts and neither does it claim to have prior experience in Indian languages”.

Neustar runs plenty of IDN TLDs for its dot-brand customers, but none of them appear to be in Indian scripts.

NIXI’s February request for proposals (pdf) contains the requirement: “Support of IDN TLDs in all twenty two scheduled Indian languages and Indian scripts”.

I suppose it’s debatable what this means. Actual, hands-on, operational experience running Indian-script TLDs at scale would be a hell of a requirement to put in an RFP, essentially locking Afilias into the contract for years to come.

Only Verisign and Public Interest Registry currently run delegated gTLDs that use officially recognized Indian scripts, according to my database. And those TLDs — such as Verisign’s .कॉम (the Devanagari .com) — are basically unused.

Neither Neustar nor Afilias have responded to DI’s requests for comment today.

.in has over 2.2 million domains under management, according to NIXI.

Neustar’s Indian subsidiary undercut its rival with a $0.70 per-domain-year offer, $0.40 cheaper than Afilias’ $1.10, according to Moneycontrol.

That would make the deal worth north of $12 million over five years for Afilias and over $7.7 million for Neustar.

One can’t help but be reminded of the two companies’ battle over Australia’s .au, which Afilias sneaked out from under long-time incumbent Neustar late last year.

That handover, the largest in DNS history, was completed relatively smoothly a couple months ago.

auDA probably won’t pass on full Afilias savings to registrants

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2018, Domain Registries

Switching .au’s back-end to Afilias will cut auDA’s per-domain costs by more than half, but registrants are not likely to benefit from the full impact of the savings.

auDA’s Bruce Tonkin, who led the committee that selected Afilias to replace incumbent Neustar, told DI this week that the organization is likely to take a bigger cut of .au registration fees in future, in order to invest in marketing.

That would include marketing the ability of Aussies to register .au domains at the second level for the first time — a controversial, yet-to-roll-out proposal.

Tonkin confirmed that the back-end fee auDA will be paying Afilias is less than half of what it is currently paying Neustar — the unconfirmed rumor is that it’s 40% of the current rate — but said that Afilias was not the cheapest of the nine bidders.

While .au names are sold for a minimum of two years, the current wholesale price charged to registrars works out to AUD 8.75 ($6.85) per year, of which Neustar gets AUD 6.33; auDA receives the other AUD 2.42.

A back-end fee of roughly $5 (US) per domain per year is well above market rates, so it’s pretty clear why auDA chose to open the contract to competition.

Tonkin explained the process by which Afilias was selected:

We first considered scoring without price, and Afilias received the highest score for non-financial criteria.

We then considered pricing information to form an assessment of value for money. The average pricing across the 9 [Request For Tender] responses was less than half of the present registry back-end fee ($6.33). Afilias was close to the average pricing, and while it was not the cheapest price — it was considered best value for money when taking into account the highest score in non-financial criteria.

I asked Afilias for comment on rumors that its price was 60% down on the current rate and received this statement:

Afilias believes auDA chose us based on the best overall value for the Australian internet community. The evaluation heavily weighted expertise, quality and breadth of service over price. While we don’t know what others bid, Afilias works to be competitive in today’s market. Attempts to price significantly higher than market without a value proposition are unrealistic and could even be considered price gouging.

It’s not known what price Neustar bid for the continuation of the contract, but I expect it will have also offered a deep discount to its current rate.

By switching, auDA is basically going to be saving itself over AUD 3 per domain per year, which works out to a total of AUD 9 million ($7 million) per year at least.

But the organization has yet to decide how much of that money, if any, to pass on to its registrars and ultimately registrants.

The auDA board of directors will meet in March to discuss this, Tonkin (who is in charge of the registry transition project but not on the board) said.

“We don’t want to set expectations that the wholesale price is going to change massively,” he said.

“I don’t expect it’s going to be any higher than the current wholesale price,” he said.

But he said he expects auDA to increase its slice of the pie in order to raise more money for marketing. The organization does “basically no marketing” now, he said.

“There’s certainly strong interest in doing more to market and grow the namespace,” he said. “One option is that more money is put into marketing the namespace and growing awareness of .au… That AUD 2.42, I expect that to change.”

This would include marketing direct second-level registrations, an incoming change to how .au names are sold that has domain investors worried about confusion and market dilution.

Outrage over the 2LD proposal — it appears to be a done deal, even if the details and timeline have yet to be finalized — has started attracting the attention of business media in Australia recently.

But auDA’s own research shows that opposition is not that substantial outside of these “special interests”.

A survey last year showed that 40% of .com.au registrants “support” or “strongly support” the direct registration proposal, with 18% “opposed” or “strongly opposed” Another 42% were completely unaware of the changes.

Support among .org.au registrants was lower, and it was higher among .net.au registrants.

But 36% of “special interests” — which appears to mean people who discovered the survey due to their close involvement in the domain industry — were opposed to the plan.

There’s no current timeline for the introduction of direct registrations, but the back-end handover from Neustar to Afilias is set to happen July 1 this year.

Neustar acquired AusRegistry, which has been running .au since 2002, for $87 million a couple of years ago.

Shocker! After 15 years, Afilias kicks Neustar out of Australia

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2017, Domain Registries

Afilias has been awarded the contract to run .au, Australia’s ccTLD, kicking out incumbent Neustar after 15 years.

It’s currently a 3.1 million-domain contract, meaning it’s going to be the largest back-end transition in the history of the DNS.

It’s also very likely going to see the price of a .au domain come down.

Neustar, via its 2015 acquisition of AusRegistry, has been the back-end provider for .au since 2002. That deal is now set to end July 1, 2018.

auDA, the ccTLD manager, said today that Afilias was selected from a shortlist of three bidders, themselves whittled down from the initial pool of nine.

It’s not been disclosed by auDA who the other shortlisted bidders were, and Afilias execs said they do not know either. I suspect Neustar would have been one of them.

The contract was put up for bidding in May, after auDA and Neustar failed to come to terms on a renewal.

At 3.1 million domains under management, .au is currently bigger than .org was when Afilias took over the back-end from Verisign in 2003.

Back then, .org was at 2.7 million names. It’s now at over 10 million.

“It’s the biggest transition ever, but not by much,” Afilias chief marketing officer Roland LaPlante said.

CTO Ram Mohan said that it should actually be easily than the .org transition, which had the added wrinkle of switching registrars from Verisign’s legacy RPP protocol to the now-standard EPP.

auDA said that Afilias will start reaching out to the 40-odd current .au registrars about the transition “as early as this week”.

About half of registrars are already on Afilias’ back-end and about half are ICANN-accredited, LaPlante said.

“We don’t expect to have many changes for registrars, but we have plenty of time to prepare them for what is needed,” Mohan said. “It ought to be a fairly easy glide path.”

There will be a live test environment for registrars to integrate with prior to the formal handover, he said.

There are several local presence requirements to the contract, so Afilias will open up a 20-person office in Melbourne headed by current VP of corporate services John Kane, who will shortly move there.

The company will also have to open a data center there, as the contract requires all data to be stored in-country.

Mohan, LaPlante and Kane said they’re all jumping on planes to Melbourne tonight to begin transition talks with local interested parties.

Financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed right now, but LaPlante said that .au registrars should see prices come down. This could lead to lower prices for registrants.

They currently pay AUD 17.50 ($13.44) per domain for a two-year registration, and I believe Neustar’s cut is currently around the $5 (USD) per year mark.

Afilias is not known for being a budget-end back-end provider, but it seems its slice of the pie will be smaller than Neustar’s.

LaPlante said that fees charged to registrars will be set by auDA, but that it now has flexibility to reduce prices that it did not have under the incumbent.

“Some savings should flow down to registrars as part of this,” he said.

The term of the contract is “four or five years” with options to renew for additional years, he said.

The loss of .au has no doubt come as a blow to Neustar, which paid $87 million for AusRegistry parent Bombrra just two years ago.

While Bombora also had dozens of new gTLD clients, many dot-brands, .au was undoubtedly its key customer.

Three-million-domain .au deal up for grabs

auDA has formally launched the process that will could see it replace .au back-end provider Neustar with an in-house registry by the end of June 2018.

The Australian ccTLD operator has opened a “Request for Expressions of Interest” as the first stage of a procurement process for software and/or services to support its recently announced Registry Transformation Project.

It’s looking for companies that can provide all the major pieces of a domain name registry — EPP registry, Whois, DNS, etc — and my reading of the REOI reveals a preference towards a system owned and operated by auDA.

Respondents can respond with products, technology and / or services for all or part of the elements of the Registry Transformation Project, and are free to partner with other respondents to put together combined proposals.

auDA intends to establish a dedicated .au registry, and have all arrangements in place to support this, by 30 June 2018.

The organization even talks about eventually becoming one of ICANN’s approved Emergency Back-End Registry Operators.

.au has grown to over 3 million domains over the 15 years it was being managed by AusRegistry, which was acquired by US-based Neustar in 2015. This deal is due to expire next year.

So it’s a big contract, and one that is likely to attract a lot of interest from players big and small.

That said, registry solutions are typically offered very much on a service basis. The market for licensed registry software is not exactly bustling, and auDA also requires source code access as a condition of any deal.

auDA said the deadline for responses to the REOI is June 26. It will decide upon its next steps, which could be a formal request for proposals, in the last week of July.

Further details can be found here.

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