Verisign has just announced that it will increase its .net registry fee by 10% next year.
The changes, which will become effective July 1, 2013, see the charge for a one-year registration increase from $5.11 to $5.62.
The increase, which is permitted under Verisign’s contract with ICANN, was inevitable given the fact that the company has just lost the right to increase .com prices.
US Department of Commerce intervention in .com means that prices there are frozen for the next six years, so Verisign can be relied upon to seize every alternative growth opportunity available to it.
The last time .net’s fee was increased was January 2012, when it went up by 10% to the current $5.11.
It’s a bad day for Verisign.
As the company pins its growth hopes partially on its applications for IDN gTLDs — in the wake of losing its price-raising powers over .com — ccTLD registries from Asia-Pacific have raised serious concerns about its bids.
The Asia Pacific Top Level Domain Association says that many of its members reckon the proposed IDN transliterations of .com “could give rise to an increased risk of phishing and other malicious abuses”.
Verisign has applied for a dozen transliterations of .com and .net in scripts such as Hebrew, Cyrillic and Arabic. The strings themselves are meaningless, but they sound like “com” and “net”.
It’s for this reason that APTLD reckons they could cause problems. In an October 1 letter to ICANN, published today, the organization said:
In addition to the potential for user confusion, some [Working Group] members also noted that the creation of transliterated TLDs, without the development of adequate registration and eligibility polices and procedures, could give rise to an increased risk of phishing and other malicious abuses of the new spaces.
The WG notes that this potential problem manifests itself at the second level, and is not unique to tranlisterated TLDs, but would argue that the very nature of these TLDs, and their close similarity to existing TLDs, makes them particularly high-risk targets.
The letter does not single out Verisign, and does not represent a consensus APTLD view.
There are also worries among APTLD members about the application for .thai in Latin script, which could clash with Thailand’s IDN ccTLD, and various translations of “.site”.
APTLD notes that the new gTLD evaluation process only contains checks for visual similarity between TLDs.
The only way to block an application based on phonetic confusion is to file a String Confusion Objection, but the only entity eligible to object to Verisign’s applications is Verisign itself.
Today’s shock news that Verisign will be subject to a .com price freeze for the next six years will have broad implications.
The US Department of Commerce has told the company it will have to continue to sell .coms at $7.85 wholesale until 2018, barring exceptional circumstances.
Here’s my initial take on the winners and losers of this new arrangement.
Volume .com registrants are of course the big winners here. A couple of dollars a year for a single .com is pretty insignificant, but when you own tens or hundreds of thousands of names…
Mike Berkens of Most Wanted Domains calculated that he’s saved
$170,000 $400,000 over the lifetime of the new .com deal, and he reckons fellow domainer Mike Mann will have saved closer to $800,000 $2 million.
The other big constituency of volume registrants are the brand owners who spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year maintaining defensive registrations — mostly in .com — that they don’t need.
Microsoft, for example, owns over 91,000 domain names, according to DomainTools. I’d hazard a guess that most of those are defensive and that most are in .com.
There’s potentially trouble on the horizon for new gTLD applicants and existing registry operators. Verisign is looking for new ways to grow, and it’s identified its patent portfolio as an under-exploited revenue stream.
The company says it has over 200 patents either granted or pending, so its pool of potential licensees could be quite large.
Its US portfolio includes patents such as 7,774,432, “Registering and using multilingual domain names”, which appear to be quite broad.
Verisign also owns a bunch of patents related to its security business, so companies in that field may also be targeted.
Verisign’s registrars will no longer have to pass their cost increases on to consumers every year.
While this may help with renewal rates, it also means registrars won’t be able to sneak in their own margin increases whenever Verisign ups its annual fees.
Another area Verisign plans to grow is in internationalized domain names, where it’s applied to ICANN for about a dozen non-Latin variants of .com and .net.
Those registry deals, assuming they’re approved by ICANN, will not be governed by the .com pricing restrictions. Now that Verisign’s growth is getting squeezed, we might expect higher prices for IDN .com variants.
ICANN may have suffered a small reputational hit today, with Commerce demonstrating it has the balls to do what ICANN failed to do six years ago, but money-wise it’s doing okay.
The new .com contract changes the way Verisign pays ICANN fees, and Commerce does not appear to have made any changes to that structure. ICANN still stands to get about $8 million a year more from the deal.
The Department of Commerce
Unless you’re a Verisign shareholder, Commerce comes out of this deal looking pretty good. It played hard-ball and seems to have won a lot of credibility points as a result.
Verisign has sensationally lost the right to increase .com prices under a new deal struck with the US Department of Commerce.
In a statement to the markets just now, the company announced that the .com contract approved by ICANN earlier this year has now also been approved by Commerce, but with no more price increases:
Verisign’s current pricing of $7.85 per domain name registration will continue for the six-year term of the Agreement. Second, Verisign no longer has the right to four price increases of up to seven percent over the six-year term.
The company will only be able to increase prices with prior Commerce approval in response to “extraordinary” circumstances such as a security problem, or when the competitive landscape changes.
For example, if .com loses its “market power”, pricing restrictions could be lifted entirely, subject to Commerce approval.
Similarly, if ICANN approves a Consensus Policy that changes Verisign’s cost structure, the company could apply for price-increasing powers.
The deal is a huge blow for Verisign’s shareholders, wiping tens — potentially hundreds — of millions of dollars from the company’s top line over the coming six years.
Its share price is sure to nose-dive today. It’s already trading down 15% before the New York markets open.
It’s also an embarrassment to ICANN, which seems to have demonstrated that it’s less capable of looking after the interests of registrants than the US government.
That said, the new contract appears to have kept ICANN’s new fee structure, meaning the organization will be about $8 million a year richer than before.
In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Verisign said the new pricing provisions came in Amendment 32 to its Cooperative Agreement with Commerce:
Amendment 32 provides that the Maximum Price (as defined in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement) of a .com domain name shall not exceed $7.85 for the term of the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, except that the Company is entitled to increase the Maximum Price of a .com domain name due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy or documented extraordinary expense resulting from an attack or threat of attack on the Security or Stability of the DNS as described in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, provided that the Company may not exercise such right unless the DOC provides prior written approval that the exercise of such right will serve the public interest, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld. Amendment 32 further provides that the Company shall be entitled at any time during the term of the 2012 . com Registry Agreement to seek to remove the pricing restrictions contained in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement if the Company demonstrates to the DOC that market conditions no longer warrant pricing restrictions in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, as determined by the DOC. Amendment 32 also provides that the DOC’s approval of the 2012 .com Registry Agreement is not intended to confer federal antitrust immunity on the Company with respect to the 2012 .com Registry Agreement and extends the term of the Cooperative Agreement through November 30, 2018.
On a conference call with analysts, Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos said that the deal was in the best interests of the company. It still gives the company the presumptive right for renewal, he said.
Growth, he said, will come in future from an expansion of its .com installed base, new IDN gTLD variants, and providing back-end registry services to other new gTLDs.
“We’re still a growth company,” he said.
“We have a patent portfolio we haven’t really exploited,” he said, referring to about 200 patents granted and pending. “We think there’s a revenue opportunity there.”
Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at Commerce, said in a statement:
Consumers will benefit from Verisign’s removal of the automatic price increases. At the same time, the agreement protects the security and stability of the Internet by allowing Verisign to take cost-based price increases where justified.
The full Amendment 32 is posted here.
Verisign has assured investors that it is confident its .com registry agreement is not in jeopardy, after seeing its stock plummet due to uncertainties over the deal.
In a statement yesterday, the company also defended the planned continuation of its price-raising powers.
It emerged last week that the US Department of Commerce is looking into the pricing arrangements of the new .com deal, which ICANN approved back in June.
Commerce has the right — in consultation with the Department of Justice and others — to approve or reject the contract based on its security/stability and pricing terms.
Whatever happens, it’s virtually unthinkable that Verisign will lose the contract. The company said:
While the review process with the Commerce Department may extend beyond Nov. 30, 2012, it could also be concluded by Nov. 30, 2012. In either case, Verisign expects to continue to run the .com registry.
It also said that its ability to increase prices by 7% in four of the six years of the contract is in fact in the public interest, saying in a lengthy statement:
The .com registry has an unequaled record of achievement, with full availability of DNS resolution in .com for more than 15 consecutive years. The economic activity supported by the .com registry is significant by any measure in an environment where the consequences of a failure of even a very short duration or degradation of the Domain Name System (DNS) resolution service, due to either a cyber attack or failure of hardware, software, or personnel, would have significant economic and non-economic impacts to the global economy.
The level of security and stability offered by Verisign is only possible with investments in overcapacity and redundancy, network security, intellectual property (IP) and in human capital: The engineers and employees at Verisign who operate the .com registry and ensure its security and stability. The pricing terms of the .com Registry Agreement enable Verisign to make these investments, develop the necessary IP, know-how and purpose-built systems, respond to new threats to stability as they emerge, and recruit and retain the specialized talent necessary to maintain our network, including dozens of globally distributed constellation sites and data centers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In essence, Verisign is saying that the security and stability record — which Commerce evidently has already reviewed to its satisfaction — are inextricably linked to its ability to raise prices.
The company’s share price fell 18% in the aftermath of last week’s news, but recovered slightly yesterday — gaining about 11% — after the statement was released.