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Trump gives Verisign almost $1 billion in free money

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

The Trump administration may have just handed Verisign close to $1 billion in free money.

That’s according to the back of the envelope I’m looking at right now, following the announcement that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is reinstating Verisign’s right to increase .com registry fees.

As you may have read elsewhere already (I was off sick last week, sorry about that) a new amendment to the Verisign-NTIA Cooperative Agreement restores Verisign’s ability to raise prices by 7% per year in four of the six years of the deal.

The removal of the Obama-era price freeze still needs to be incorporated into Verisign’s ICANN contract, but it’s hard to imagine ICANN, which is generally loathe to get into pricing regulation, declining to take its lead from NTIA.

Verisign would also have to choose to exercise its option to increase prices in each of the four years. I think the probability of this happening is 1 in 1.

Layering this and a bunch of other assumptions into a spreadsheet, I’m coming up with a figure of roughly an extra $920 million that Verisign will get to add to its top line over the next six years.

Again, this isn’t an in-depth study. Just back-of-the-envelope stuff. I’ll talk you through my thinking.

Not counting its occasional promotions, Verisign currently makes $7.85 for every year that a .com domain is added or renewed, and for every inter-registrar transfer.

In 2017, .com saw 40.89 million add-years, 84.64 million renew-years and 3.79 million transfers, according to official registry reports.

This all adds up to 129,334,643 revenue events for Verisign, or just a tad over $1 billion at $7.85 a pop.

Over the four-year period of the price increases transaction fees will go up to $8.40, then $8.99, then $9.62, then $10.29. I’m rounding up to the nearest penny here, it’s possible Verisign may round down.

If we assume zero transaction growth, that’s already an extra $762.2 million into Verisign’s coffers over the period of the contract.

But the number of transactions inevitably grows each year — more new domains are added, and some percentage of them renew.

Between 2016 and 2017, transaction growth was 3.16%.

If we assume the same growth each year for the next six years, the difference between Verisign’s total revenue at $7.85 and at the new pricing comes to $920 million.

Verisign doesn’t have to do anything for this extra cash, it just gets it.

Indeed, the new NTIA deal is actually less restrictive on the company. It allows Verisign to acquire or start up an ICANN-accredited gTLD registrar, something it is currently banned from doing, just as long as that registrar does not sell .com domains.

Verisign’s .net contract also currently bans the company from owning more than 15% of a registrar, so presumably that agreement would also need to be amended in order for Verisign to get into the registrar business.

I say again that my math here is speculative; I’m a blogger, not a financial analyst. There may be some incorrect assumptions — I’ve not accounted for promotions at all, for example, and the 3.16% growth assumption might not be fair — and there are of course many variables that could move the needle.

But the financial markets know a sweetheart deal when they see one, and Verisign’s share price went up 17.2% following the news, reportedly reaching heights not seen since since the dwindling days of the dot-com bubble 18 years ago.

The reason given for the lifting of the price freeze was, for want of a better word, bullshit. From the NTIA’s amendment:

In recognition that ccTLDs, new gTLDs, and the use of social media have created a more dynamic DNS marketplace, the parties agree that the yearly price for the registration and renewal of domain names in the .com registry may be changed

Huh?

This seems to imply that Verisign has somehow been disproportionately harmed by the rise of social media, the appearance of new gTLDs and some unspecified change in the ccTLD marketplace.

While it’s almost certainly true that .net has taken a whack due to competition from new gTLDs, and that the domain marketplace overall may have been diminished by many small businesses spurning domains by choosing to set up shop on, say, Facebook, .com is still a growing money-printing machine with some of the fattest margins seen anywhere in the business world and about a 40% global market share.

If the Trump administration’s goal here is to make some kind of ideological statement about free markets, then why not just lift the price caps altogether? Give Verisign the right to price .com however it pleases?

Or maybe Trump just wants to flip the bird to Obama once more by reversing yet another of his policies?

Who knows? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.