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With 86 days to go, the cost of new gTLDs is still unknown

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2011, Domain Policy

If you’re planning to apply for a new generic top-level domain or two, wouldn’t it be nice to know how much it’s going to cost you?

It’s less than three months before ICANN opens the floodgates to new gTLD applicants, but you’re probably not going to find out how big your bank account needs to be until the last minute.

With 86 days on the clock until the application window opens, and 177 until it closes, there are still at least two huge pricing policies that have yet to be finalized by ICANN.

The first relates to reduced application fees and/or financial support handouts for worthy applicants from developing nations. I’ll get to that in a separate piece before Dakar.

The second is the controversial Continued Operations Instrument, a cash reserve designed to ensure that new gTLDs continue to operate even if the registry manager goes out of business.

In the current Applicant Guidebook, prospective registries are told to prove that they have enough money – either with a letter of credit or in a cash escrow – to keep their gTLD alive for three years.

To be clear, the COI money doesn’t go into ICANN’s coffers; applicants just need to show that the cash exists, somewhere.

The funds would be used to pay the Emergency Back-End Registry Operator (whichever company that turns out to be) in the event of a catastrophic gTLD business failure.

With hundreds of new gTLDs predicted, many of them likely to be laughably naive, we’re likely to see plenty of such failures.

With that in mind, ICANN wants to make sure that registrants and end users are not impacted by too much downtime if they put their faith in incompetent or unlucky registries.

It is estimated that the COI will amount to a six-figure sum for almost all commercial registries. For generics with a higher projected registration volume it could easily run into the millions.

It’s controversial for a number of reasons.

First, it raises the financial bar to applying considerably.

Forget the $185,000 application fee. Under the COI provision, applicants need to be flush enough to be able to leave millions of dollars dormant in escrow for at least five years.

It’s been sensibly argued that this money would be better devoted to making sure the registry doesn’t fail in the first place.

Second, even though the Guidebook gives .brand applicants the ability to shut down their gTLDs without the risk of another provider taking them over, it also expects them to create a COI.

This appears to be an unnecessary waste of cash. If a single-registrant .brand gTLD fails, the registry itself is the only registrant affected and the COI is essentially redundant.

Third, some applicants are thinking about low-balling their business model projections in order to keep their COI to a manageable amount.

This, as the better new gTLD consultants will tell you, could be a bad idea. When applications are reviewed the evaluators will be looking for discrepancies like this.

If you’re making one set of financial projections to investors and another to ICANN, you risk losing points on and possibly failing the evaluation.

Anyway, with all this in mind (and with apologies for burying the lead) ICANN has just said that it’s thinking about completely revamping the COI policy before applications are accepted.

Seriously.

ICANN’s Registry Stakeholder Group community has made a proposal – which appears to be utterly sensible on the face of it – that would reduce costs by pooling the risk among successful applicants.

The RySG said it that the COI “should not be so burdensome as to actually become a roadblock to the success of new registries by causing capital to be tied up unduly.”

Rather than putting up enough cash to cover its own failure, each successful applicant would pay $50,000 up-front into a Continued Operations Fund that would cover all potential registry failures.

The COF would be administered by ICANN (or possibly a third party), and would be capped at $20 million. In a round of 400 new gTLDs, that target would be reached immediately.

If the COF fell short of $20 million, each registry would have to pay $0.05 per domain name per year into the fund until the cap was reached.

It’s a shared-risk insurance model, essentially.

While ICANN’s COI policy is ultra-cautious, implicitly assuming that ALL new gTLDs could simultaneously fail, the COF proposal assumes that only a small subset will.

Reverse-engineering the RySG’s numbers, the COF appears to cover the risk of failure for registries representing some 10 million domain-years.

ICANN has opened up the proposal to public comments until December 2.

This means we’re unlikely to see any concrete action to approve or reject the COF alternative until, at the earliest, about a month before the first round application window opens.

ICANN likes cutting things fine, doesn’t it?

Corsica seeks new gTLD registry operator

Kevin Murphy, October 10, 2011, Domain Registries

The local government of the French island of Corsica is looking for contractors to apply for and manage a .corsica top-level domain.

The Executive Council of the Collectivité Territoriale de Corse issued an RFP in late September. The deadline for responses is October 17, a week from now.

The desired string appears to be the Anglicized .corsica, rather than the French .corse.

Corsica, situated in the Mediterranean, is one of France’s 22 official regions. According to Wikipedia, it has slightly more political power than its mainland counterparts.

Under ICANN’s new gTLD application rules, geographical strings need the approval of the relevant local government before they can be accepted.

I expect any .corsica application would need a letter of support or non-objection from the French national government as well as the Corsican executive, before it is approved.

(via Jean Guillon)

ICANN hunts for anti-cybersquatting database provider

Kevin Murphy, October 10, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN is in the process of looking for an operator for the Trademark Clearinghouse that will play a crucial brand protection role in new top-level domains.

An RFI published last week says that ICANN is looking for an exclusive contractor, but that it may consider splitting the deal between two companies — one to provide trademark validation services and the other to manage the database.

The TMCH is basically a big database of validated trademarks that registrars/registries will have to integrate with. It will be an integral part of any new gTLD launch.

Registries are obliged by ICANN rules to hold a sunrise period and a Trademark Claims service when they go live, both of which leverage the clearinghouse’s services.

Rather than having to submit proof of trademark rights to each gTLD operator, brand owners will only have to be validated by the TMCH in order to be pre-validated by all gTLDs.

I estimate that the contract is worth a few million dollars a year, minimum.

If the ongoing .xxx sunrise period is any guide, we might be looking at a database of some 30,000 to 40,000 trademark registrations in the first year of the TMCH.

One potential TMCH provider currently charges $100 for the initial first-year validation and a recurring $70 for re-validation in subsequent years.

ICANN has not ruled out the successful TMCH provider selling add-on services too.

But the organization also seems to be at pains to ensure that the clearinghouse is not seen as another gouge on the trademark industry.

The RFI contains questions such as: “How can it be assured that you will not maximize your registrations at the expense of security, quality, and technical and operational excellence?”

The two providers that immediately spring to mind as RFI respondents are IProta and the Clearinghouse for Intellectual Property (CHIP).

Belgium-based CHIP arguably has the most institutional experience. It’s handled sunrise periods for Somalia’s .so, the .asia IDN sunrise, a few pseudo-gTLD initiatives from the likes of CentralNIC (de.com, us.org, etc), and is signed up to do the same for .sx.

Its chief architect, Bart Lieben of the law firm Crowell & Moring, is also well-known in the industry for his work on several sunrise period policies.

IProta is a newer company, founded in London this year by Jonathan Robinson, an industry veteran best known for co-founding corporate domain registrar Group NBT.

The company is currently managing the .xxx sunrise period, which is believed to be the highest-volume launch since .eu in late 2005.

“IPRota is very well positioned on the basis of our recent and past experience so I think we almost certainly will go ahead and respond,” Robinson confirmed to DI.

Domain name registries and registrars could conceivably also apply, based on their experience handling high-volume transactional databases and their familiarity with the EPP protocol.

ICANN sees the potential for conflicts of interest — its RFI anticipates that any already-contracted party applying to run the TMCH will have to impose a Chinese wall to reduce that risk.

The RFI is open for responses until November 25. ICANN intends to name its selected provider February 14, a month after it starts accepting new gTLD applications.

This is another reason, in my view, why submitting an application in January may not be the smartest move in the world.

BITS may apply for six financial gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2011, Domain Registries

BITS, the technology policy wing of the Financial Services Roundtable, may apply to ICANN for as many as six financially-focused new top-level domains.

The organization is pondering bids for .bank, .banking, .insure, .insurance, .invest and .investment, according to Craig Schwartz, who’s heading the project as general manager for registry programs.

(UPDATE: To clarify, these are the six strings BITS is considering. It does not expect to apply for all six. Three is a more likely number.)

Schwartz, until recently ICANN’s chief gTLD registry liaison, told DI that the application(s) will be filed by a yet-to-be-formed LLC, which will have the FSR and the American Bankers Association as its founding members.

It will be a community-designated bid, which means the company may be able to avoid an ICANN auction in the event that its chosen gTLD strings are contested by other applicants.

“We’ve looked at the scoring, and while it may not come into play at all we do believe we can meet the requisite score [for a successful Community Priority Evaluation],” Schwartz said. “But we’re certainly mindful of what’s happening in the space, there’s always the possibility of contention.”

There’s no relationship between BITS and CORE, the Council of European Registrars, which is apparently looking into applying for its own set of financially-oriented gTLDs, Schwartz said.

It’s not a big-money commercial play, but the new venture would be structured as a for-profit entity, he said.

“It’s relatively analogous to what’s happened in the .coop space, where after 10 years they have only about 7,000 registrations,” Schwartz said.

It sounds like pricing might be in the $100+ range. Smaller financial institutions lacking the resources to apply for their own .brand gTLDs would be a likely target customer base.

Interestingly, .bank may begin life as a business-to-business play, used primarily for secure inter-bank transactions, before it becomes a consumer-facing proposition, Schwartz said.

He added that it would likely partner with a small number of ICANN-accredited registrars – those that are able to meet its security requirements – to get the domains into the hands of banks.

VeriSign has already signed up to provide the secure back-end registry services for the bid.

AusRegistry drops the “Aus”, sets up in US

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2011, Domain Registries

AusRegistry International has rebranded itself as ARI Registry Services and will now offer new gTLD clients the option to host their domains in either Australia or the US.

ARIThe company has built itself a registry back-end in an undisclosed location on US soil to support the move.

Dropping the “Aus” appears to be specifically designed to address the perception that locating a gTLD in Australia is somehow technologically or politically risky, which ARI says isn’t the case.

ARI CEO Adrian Kinderis explained the decision in a press release:

We are the first to admit that the ‘Aus’ reference in our previous name incorrectly positioned us as a smaller, geographically focused organisation, which did create some issues with our plans for global expansion. Despite the fact we have an office and staff in the United States and clients situated in four of the seven continents around the world, there remained some belief that our services were somewhat isolated in Australia.

Potential gTLD applicants are concerned about issues such as “overzealous governments, privacy and ownership laws, political environments and financial benefits including currency fluctuations” that can vary according to the jurisdiction a registry is hosted in, ARI said.

A choice between the US and Australia may seem like a choice between one “overzealous government” and another, but it may at least put some insular American companies’ minds at rest.

While the move makes perfect business sense for ARI, I can’t help but feel that ICANN’s goal of increasing geographic diversity in the registry industry seems a little diminished this morning.

The rebranding does not affect the company’s parent, AusRegistry Group, which provides the back-end for Australia’s .au ccTLD.

ARI’s new domain is ariservices.com.