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Is ICANN still over-estimating revenue from “stagnating” gTLD industry?

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN may have slashed millions from its revenue estimate for next year, but it has not slashed deeply enough, according to registrars and others.

Industry growth is flat, and below even ICANN’s “worst case” expectations for the fiscal year starting July 1, registrars told the organization in comments filed on its FY19 budget last week.

The Registrars Stakeholder Group said that “the FY 2019 budget fails to recognize that overall industry growth is flat.”

ICANN’s budget foresees FY19 revenue of $138 million, up $3.5 million on the projected result for FY18.

“These revenue projections presume growth in the domain market that is not aligned with industry expectations,” the RrSG said, pointing to sources such as Verisign’s Domain Name Industry Brief, which calculated 1% industry growth last year.

ICANN’s predictions are based on previous performance and fail to take into account historical “one-time events”, such as the Chinese domain speculation boom of a couple years ago, that probably won’t be repeated, RrSG said.

RrSG also expects the number of accredited registrars to decrease due to industry consolidation and drop-catching registrars reducing their stables of shell accreditations.

(I’ll note here that Web.com has added half a dozen drop-catchers to its portfolio in just the last few weeks, but this goes against the grain of recent trends and may be an aberration.)

RrSG said ICANN’s budget should account for reduced or flat accreditation fee revenue (which as far as I can tell it already does).

The comment, which can be read in full here, concludes:

Taken together, these concerns represent a disconnect between ICANN funding projections, and the revenue expectations of Registrars (and presumably, gTLD Registries) from which these funds are derived. In our view, ICANN’s assessment of budgetary “risks” are too optimistic , and actual performance for FY19 will be significant lower.

For what it’s worth, the Registries Stakeholder Group had this to say about ICANN’s revenue estimates:

Reliable forecasts, characterised by their scrutiny and realism, are fundamental to put together a realistic budget and to avoid unpleasant surprises, such as the shortage ICANN is experiencing in the current fiscal year. The RySG advises ICANN to continue to conduct checks on its forecasts and to re-evaluate the methodology used to predict its income in order to prevent another funding shortfall such as that which the organization experienced in FY18.

Community calls on ICANN to cut staff spending

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN should look internally to cut costs before swinging the scythe at the volunteer community.

That’s a key theme to emerge from many comments filed by the community last week on ICANN’s fiscal 2019 budget, which sees spending on staff increase even as revenue stagnates and cuts are made in other key areas.

ICANN said in January that it would have to cut $5 million from its budget for the year beginning July 1, 2018, largely due to a massive downwards revision in how many new gTLD domains it expects the industry to process.

At the same time, the organization said it will increase its payroll by $7.3 million, up to $76.8 million, with headcount swelling to 425 by the end of the fiscal year and staff receiving on average a 2% pay rise.

In comments filed on the budget, many community members questioned whether this growth can be justified.

Among the most diplomatic objections came from the GNSO Council, which said:

In principle, the GNSO Council believes that growth of staff numbers should only occur under explicit justification and replacements due to staff attrition should always occur with tight scrutiny; especially in times of stagnate funding levels.

The Council added that it is not convinced that the proposed budget funds the policy work it needs to do over the coming year.

The Registrars Stakeholder Group noted the increased headcount with concern and said:

Given the overall industry environment where organizations are being asked to do more with less, we are not convinced these additional positions are needed… The RrSG is not yet calling for cuts to ICANN Staff, we believe the organization should strive to maintain headcount at FY17 Actual year-end levels.

The RrSG shared the GNSO Council’s concern that policy work, ICANN’s raison d’etre, may suffer under the proposed budget.

The At-Large Advisory Committee said it “does not support the direction taken in this budget”, adding:

Specifically we see an increase in staff headcount and personnel costs while services to the community have been brutally cut. ICANN’s credibility rests upon the multistakeholder model, and cuts that jeopardize that model should not be made unless there are no alternatives and without due recognition of the impact.

Staff increases may well be justified, but we must do so we a real regard to costs and benefits, and these must be effectively communicated to the community

ALAC is concerned that the budget appears to cut funding to many projects that see ICANN reach out to, and fund participation by, non-industry potential community members.

Calling for “fiscal prudence”, the Intellectual Property Constituency said it “encourages ICANN to take a hard look at personnel costs and the use of outside professional services consultants.”

The IPC is also worried that ICANN may have underestimated the costs of its contractual compliance programs.

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group had some strong words:

The organisation’s headcount, and personnel costs, cannot continue to grow. We feel strongly that the proposal to grow headcount by 25 [Full-Time Employees] to 425 FTE in a year where revenue has stagnated cannot be justified.

With 73% of the overall budget now being spent on staff and professional services, there is an urgent need to see this spend decrease over time… there is a need to stop the growth in the size of the staff, and to review staff salaries, bonuses, and fringe benefits.

NCSG added that ICANN could perhaps reduce costs by relocating some positions from its high-cost Los Angeles headquarters to the “global south”, where the cost of living is more modest.

The ccNSO Strategic and Operational Planning Standing Committee was the only commentator, that I could find, to straight-up call for a freeze in staff pay rises. While also suggesting moving staff to less costly parts of the globe, it said:

The SOPC – as well as many other community stakeholders – seem to agree that ICANN staff are paid well enough, and sometimes even above market average. Considering the current DNS industry trends and forecasts, tougher action to further limit or even abolish the annual rise in compensation would send a strong positive signal to the community.

It’s been suggested that, when asked to find areas to cut, ICANN department heads prioritized retaining their own staff, which is why we’re seeing mainly cuts to community funding.

I’ve only summarized the comments filed by formal ICANN structures here. Other individuals and organizations filing comments in their own capacity expressed similar views.

I was unable to find a comment explicitly supporting increased staffing costs. Some groups, such as the Registries Stakeholder Group, did not address the issue directly.

While each commentator has their own reasons for wanting to protect the corner of the budget they tap into most often, it’s a rare moment when every segment of the community (commercial and non-commercial, domain industry and IP interests) seem to be on pretty much the same page on an issue.

ICANN mulls $68 million raid on auction war chest

Kevin Murphy, March 9, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN wants to put away another $68 million for a rainy day and it’s considering raiding its new gTLD auction war chest in order to do so.

It’s also thinking about dipping into the pool of cash still left over from new gTLD application fees in order to bolster is “reserve fund” from its current level of $70 million to its target of $138 million.

But, as a relief to registrants, it appears to have ruled out steep fee increases, which had been floated as an option.

The reserve fund is basically a safety net that ICANN could use to keep the lights on in the event that revenue should suddenly plummet dramatically and unexpectedly.

If, for example, Verisign returned to its old antagonistic ways and refused to pay its .com fees for some reason, ICANN would lose about a third of its annual revenue but would be able to tap its reserve until the legal fisticuffs were resolved.

ICANN said in a discussion document (pdf) this week that it took $36 million from the reserve since 2014 in order to complete the IANA transition. Over the same period, its annual budget has swelled from about $85 million to $138 million and contributions back into the reserve have been minimal.

That’s left it with a meager $70 million squirreled away, $68 million shy of its longstanding target level of one year’s budget.

ICANN is now saying that it wants to replenish the fund in less than five years.

About $15 million of its target would come from cost-cutting its operations budget over the period.

It also wants to take at least $36 million from the new gTLD auction proceeds fund, which currently stands at $104 million (with another $132 million incoming should Verisign successfully obtain .web over the objections of rival bidders).

The remaining $17 million could come from “leftover” new gTLD application fees — that fund is currently about $80 million — or from more cost-cutting or more auction proceeds, or from a combination of the three.

A fourth option — increasing the per-transaction fees registrants are charged via their registries and registrars — appears to have been ruled out.

My back-of-the-envelope maths suggests that an annual per-transaction increase of about $0.07 would have been needed to raise $68 million over five years.

The proposal is open for public comment until April 25.

Should ICANN cut free travel, or its own staff?

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2018, Domain Policy

Is ICANN’s suddenly limited budget best spent on its staff wages or on flights and hotels for certain volunteers?

That’s the debate that’s been emerging in the ICANN community in the last few weeks since ICANN revealed it would have to make some “tough choices” in the face of lower than expected revenue from a stagnant domain industry.

Members of the ICANN Fellowship program have started a petition calling for the organization to look at its own staffing needs before cutting the number of Fellows it supports in half.

The petition is not signed (though I have a pretty good idea who started it) and at time of publication, it has 194 signatures.

The Fellowship program sees ICANN pay for the travel and lodging, along with a per diem allowance, of up to 60 community members at each of its three annual major meetings.

They’re usually ICANN newbies and generally from less-developed regions of the world.

But because ICANN is trying to cut $5 million from its fiscal 2019 budget it wants to reduce the number of supported Fellows down to 30 per meeting.

ICANN says (pdf) that the average cost to send a Fellow to a meeting is $3,348, which would work out at or $200,880 per meeting or $602,640 per year.

Cutting the program in half would presumably therefore save a tad over $300,000 a year.

It’s not nothing, but it’s chickenfeed in a budget penciled in at $138 million for FY19.

While Fellows are not the only people seeing budget cutbacks, the only one of five broad areas that will actually see growth in ICANN’s FY19 budget is staffing costs.

The organization said personnel spend will go up from $69.5 million to $76.8 million in its next fiscal year.

That’s based on the staff growing by 34 people in the fiscal year to June 30. Those people will then earn a full year’s wages in FY19, rather than the partial year they earned in FY18.

It also plans to increase headcount by four people in FY19, and to give employees an average of 2% pay rises (cut from 4%).

The end-of-year headcount would be 425. That means headcount will have doubled since about September 2013. It was at under 150 when the new gTLD program kicked off in 2012.

Does ICANN really need so many staff? It’s a question people have been asking since before headcount even broke into three digits (over 10 years ago).

The petition organizers wrote that ICANN could not only maintain but increase funding for Fellows by just lowering staffing levels by one or two people, adding:

Given that most of the fellows are from developing countries, the Fellowship Program is not only a learning platform for capacity building to empower volunteers with the skills needed to create a positive impact both within ICANN and in their home countries, but also it is practically the only way to overcome the insurmountable financial burden faced by individuals coming from world regions where even access to drinking water is problematic, not to mention access to computers and quality IT infrastructure that is taken for granted in developed countries.

There’s no denying that attending ICANN meetings can be a pricey undertaking. I come from the developed world and I’ve skipped a few for cost reasons.

But there’s no point ICANN splashing out its cash (which is after all a quasi-tax gathered ultimately from domain registrants) on a Fellowship program unless it knows what the ROI is.

Are the Fellows worth the money?

There’s a kind of running joke — that, disclosure alert, I participate in regularly — that Fellows are mainly good for being strong-armed into singing ICANN’s praises at the open-mic Public Forum sessions held at two of the three meetings each year.

But that’s probably not entirely fair. The program has supported some committed community members who are certainly not slackers.

There are two former Fellows — Léon Felipe Sanchez Ambia and Rafael Lito Ibarra — currently sitting on the ICANN board of directors, and at least one I know of on the GNSO Council.

There are also about 10 members of ICANN staff who were former fellows and ICANN has documented several more participants who are still active in formal roles in ICANN.

Would these people have gotten so involved with ICANN if that financial support had not been there for them originally? I don’t know.

ICANN has attempted in the past to put some hard numbers on the value of the program, and the results are perhaps not as encouraging as when one cherry-picks the success stories.

It conducted a survey last year (pdf) of all 602 former Fellows and managed to get a hold of 597 of them. It wanted to know whether they were still engaged in the ICANN community.

But only 53%, 317 people, even bothered to respond to the survey. Of those who did respond, 198 said they were still involved in the ICANN community.

Basically, of the 600 Fellows ICANN has subsidized to attend ICANN meetings over the last 10 years, just one third say they are still participating.

Is that a good hit rate?

Would it be worth firing a couple of ICANN staffers — or at least allowing a position or two to fall to attrition — in order to keep the Fellowship program funded at current levels?

I honestly have no strong opinion either way on this one, but I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.

No doubt ICANN is too. Its public comment period on the FY19 budget is still open.

New gTLD revenue cut by HALF in ICANN budget

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2018, Domain Policy

The new gTLD industry is performing terribly when compared to ICANN’s predictions just six months ago.

ICANN budget documents published over the weekend show that by one measure new gTLDs are doing just 51% of the business ICANN thought they would.

The new budget (pdf) shows that for the fiscal year 2018, which ends June 30, ICANN currently expects to receive $4.6 million in registry transaction fees.

These are the fees registries must pay for each new registration, renewal or transfer, when the TLD has more than 50,000 domains under management.

In a draft budget (pdf) published March 2017, its “best estimate” for these fees in FY18 was $8.9 million, almost double its newest prediction.

That prediction lasted until the approved budget (pdf) published last August.

The budget published at the weekend expects this transaction revenue to increase 31.1% to $6 million by June 30, 2019, still a long way off last year’s estimate.

At the registrar level, where registrars pay a transaction fee regardless of the size of the customer’s chosen gTLD, ICANN expects new gTLD revenue to be $3.9 million in FY18.

That’s just 52% of its March/August 2017 estimate of $7.5 million.

Looking at all reportable transactions — including the non-billable ones — ICANN’s projection for FY18 is now 21.9 million, compared to its earlier estimate of 41.7 million.

ICANN even reckons the number of new, 2012-round gTLDs actually live on the internet is going to shrink.

Its latest budget assumes 1,228 delegated TLDs by the end of June this year, which appears to be a couple light on current levels (at least according to me) and down from the 1,240 it expected a year ago.

It expects there to be 1,231 by the end of June 2019, which is even lower than it expected have in June 2017.

I suspect this is related to dot-brands cancelling their contracts, rather than retail gTLDs going dark.

Revenue from fixed registry fees for FY18 is expected to be $30.6 million, $200,00 less than previous expectations. Those numbers are for all gTLDs, old and new.

Overall, the view of new gTLDs is not pretty, when judged by what ICANN expected.

It shows that ICANN is to an extent captive to the whims of a fickle market that has in recent years been driven by penny deals and Chinese speculation.

By contrast, legacy gTLDs (.com, .info, etc) are running slightly ahead of earlier projections.

ICANN now expects legacy registry transaction fees of $48.6 million for FY18, which is $200,000 more than predicted last year.

It expects registrar transaction fees of $29.5 million, compared to its earlier forecast of $29.4 million.

This is not enough to recoup the missing new gTLD money, of course, which is why ICANN is slashing $5 million from its budget.