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Verisign upgrades its cash-printing machine but warns post-pandemic “could go either way”

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign has named the date for its long-anticipated .com prices increases, as it reported another healthy quarter and year of growth.

The company announced that the annual wholesale fee for a .com domain is going up from $7.85 to $8.39, effective September 1. That’s in line with the 7% annual cap reinstated by the Trump administration and rubber-stamped by ICANN.

It’s the first .com price increase since 2012, when reg fee was frozen by the Obama administration’s Department of Commerce under its longstanding contract with the company.

The $0.54 price increase would mean an extra $82.5 million for Verisign’s top line, assuming the .com base remains static at today’s level of 152,883,064 domains. The reality is very probably that registrations will continue to grow, however.

Verisign is allowed to increase prices by 7% three more times under its current ICANN contract. It was allowed to take the Trump bump last year but deferred due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Registrants are able to lock-in their current renewal rates for up to 10 years before the price rise kicks in, assuming registrar fees don’t increase in the meantime.

.com is of course a fabulously successful business, and it received a pandemic-related boost last year, due to a increase in small businesses moving online due to lockdown rules, which was reflected in Verisign’s fourth-quarter and full-year results.

Verisign reported fourth-quarter net income up from $148 million to $157 million, on revenue that was up 3.1% to $320 million.

For the full year, net income was up from $612 million million to $815 million, on revenue that was up 2.7% at $1.23 billion.

Operating margin is always an metric where Verisign shines — I often get phone calls from analysts baffled as to why ICANN allows such blatant profit-taking — but it was down a tad to 65.2%, from 65.5% in 2019.

That’s probably not enough to dislodge its crown as the company with the highest operating margin of the S&P 500.

Speaking to analysts and investors last week, Verisign said it’s projecting 2021 operating margin down again, to be between 64% and 65%, because of increased investment in its infrastructure and the $4 million annual bung it’s agreed to pay ICANN.

While Verisign is only going to see one quarter of higher prices this year, it seems the majority of its increased revenue will trickle down to the bottom line.

The company expects its domain growth to be between 2.5% and 4.5% in 2021. Execs noted continuing pandemic-related uncertainty. CFO George Kilguss said:

when the pandemic subsides and things start opening it up, I think it could probably go either way either it could accelerate or it could slow a little bit. We’re just not sure how the market would react just as we were somewhat uncertain when this whole pandemic started

In other words, while coronavirus proved an unexpected boon, post-pandemic economic recovery may not necessarily be a good thing for the industry.

Verisign drops half a mill on pandemic relief

Kevin Murphy, December 28, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign has donated over half a million dollars to pandemic-related causes, the company announced last week.

The donations are aimed at relieving economic side-effects of the pandemic such as food poverty and unemployment.

The .com registry operator said in a blog post it has given $275,000 to food banks in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware where most of its US operations are based, and in Fribourg, Switzerland, its European HQ.

It’s also given $250,000 to Virginia Cares, an initiative dedicated to retraining unemployed Virginians for in-demand jobs in the tech sector.

Verisign was of course an inadvertent beneficiary of the pandemic, as lockdown regimes worldwide led to a boost in domain registrations as businesses such as bars and cafes moved online.

Domain growth dropped off in Q3, says Verisign

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2020, Domain Registries

The third quarter saw the worldwide domain industry base of registrations increase by 600,000 names over the second quarter, according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief.

September ended with 370.7 million names registered across all TLDs, up 0.2% sequentially and 3% year over year.

Annual growth of 10.8 million names is a sharp drop off from the 15.3 million growth seen in Q2, during which many nations were under coronavirus lockdown.

Breaking it down by sector, it’s a case of .com growth being offset by shrinkages in new gTLDs and ccTLD, at least on an annual basis.

.com ended the quarter with 150.3 million names, up from 148.7 million three months earlier, which .net was flat at 13.4 million.

ccTLDs as a whole were at 160.6 million, up by 500,000 sequentially but down by 1.2 million compared to Q3 2019.

Unusually, the ccTLD numbers were not affected one way or the other by free extension .tk, where domains are never deleted. Verisign reports the TLD flat in Q3, but I suspect that’s due to a lack of fresh data rather than anything else.

In the top 10 largest ccTLDs, most grew or were flat sequentially. The notable standout was .uk, which lost a full million domains compared to Q2 due to the expiry of a million second-level names in September.

New gTLDs declined by 1.5 million names to settle at 30.2 million at the end of the quarter, according to the DNIB.

The report can by downloaded from this page.

Donuts boss discusses shock Afilias deal

Kevin Murphy, November 20, 2020, Domain Registries

Afilias is to spin off its registrar business and also its contested application for the .web gTLD, following its acquisition by Donuts, according to Donuts CEO Akram Atallah.

Speaking to DI last night, Atallah explained a little about how the deal, which creates a registry with about 450 strings under management, came about.

Rather than a straightforward bilateral negotiation, is seems like Afilias was shopping itself around for a buyer. Several companies were invited to bid, and Donuts won. Atallah said he does not know how many, or which, bidders Donuts was competing against.

Afilias was making over $100 million a year in revenue last time its accounts were published in 2017, but its largest gTLDs are in decline and it took a big hit when Public Interest Registry renegotiated its back-end contract for .org in 2018.

The acquisition, the value of which has not been disclosed, does not include Afilias’ registrar or mobile businesses, which Atallah said will be spun off.

He also revealed that the deal does not include Afilias’ .web gTLD application, which came second in an ICANN auction won by a Verisign-backed bidder a few years back.

Afilias is currently waiting for the results of an Independent Review Process case that seeks to overturn the winning $135 million bid and award the potentially lucrative gTLD to Afilias. The case was heard in August and a decision is surely not many months away.

What the deal does include are all of Afilias’ registry assets, including its owned gTLDs and its back-end service provider contracts.

I asked Atallah what the plans are for migrating or integrating the two registry platforms. While Afilias runs its own data centers, Donuts migrated its registry to Amazon’s AWS cloud service earlier this year.

“We have to make sure whatever we do is as painless as possible to our registrar channel and partners,” he said. “We believe that at least on the new gTLDs that they have it will probably be easier for us to move them to our back-end, which is on the cloud already… We’ll probably do that fairly quickly.”

“But remember they have other registries and ccTLDs that don’t own that they run on their back-end, so there’ll be business issues and negotiations there to see what we can do there,” he added.

While he’s not expecting anyone to notice any big changes immediately, Atallah said that over time features such as the companies’ different EPP commands will be merged, and that valued-added services will start to cross-pollinate.

“All of the features we have on our TLDs will migrate to their TLDs and vice versa,” he said.

That means things like the Domain Protected Marks List, a defensive registration service for trademark owners, will start to show up in Afilias gTLDs before long, he said.

I asked about the possibility of layoffs, something that is no doubt worrying staff at both companies right now and seems quite possible given the move to the cloud, but Atallah said it was too early to say. Nothing will change until the deal closes at the end of the year, he said.

“Once we actually close, we’ll sit down with the management of the Afilias registry team and look at all the different assets that we have and try to pick the best in class in technology and services,” he said.

Having seen some mutterings about competition concerns, I put that question to Atallah. He laughed it away, pointing out that, even combined with Afilias, Donuts will have fewer than 15 million domains under management.

Verisign increases focus on .com after flogging public DNS to Neustar

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2020, Domain Registries

Neustar has taken another nibble at former archrival Verisign, buying the company’s public DNS resolution service.

The companies announced yesterday that Neustar has acquired Verisign Public DNS, and will incorporate it into its existing UltraDNS Public service.

The deal means that several IP addresses used to provide the services will transition to Neustar, so end users don’t need to make any changes.

Recursive DNS services are often used by people or organizations that, for whatever reason, don’t trust their ISP to treat their browsing records confidentially.

Big players in the market include Google, Cloudflare, and Cisco’s OpenDNS.

Signing up for such services is usually free — users simply reconfigure their devices to point their DNS resolution to a provider’s IPs.

Providers get greater insight into network activity that they can use to boost their paid-for enterprise security services, and they sometimes monetize NXDOMAIN (non-existing domain) landing pages.

No monetary value was put on the deal.

“Verisign is committed to focusing on its core mission of providing critical internet infrastructure, including Root Zone management, operation of 2 of the 13 global internet root servers, operation of .gov and .edu, and authoritative resolution for the .com and .net top-level domains, which support the majority of global e-commerce,” Verisign senior VP Eb Keshavarz, said in a press release.

That quote buries the lede, of course — operating .com and .net is the only activity listed that makes Verisign any money, and now it’s pretty much the only thing Verisign does.

Neustar acquired Verisign’s security services business, including its fee-paying recursive DNS customers, two years ago.

Neustar is of course no longer competing with Verisign in the registry services market, having sold that business to GoDaddy earlier this year. It’s now GoDaddy Registry.

.web ruling might not come this year

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

A decision about who gets to run the .web gTLD may not arrive until early next year, according to Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos.

“A final decision from the [Independent Review Process[ panel may be issued later this year or early next year,” he told analysts late last week.

.web sold at auction for $135 million four years ago to a company being secretly bankrolled by Verisign, but the outcome is being challenged in the IRP by runner-up bidder Afilias.

Afilias argues that the auction should be voided because ICANN failed to sufficiently investigate links between Verisign and the winning bidder. ICANN denies any wrongdoing.

It’s widely believed that .web is the strongest potential competitor to Verisign’s .com, and its attempt to secure the string is largely defensive.

The IRP case heard several days of testimony in August and the panel retired to consider its decision.

These eight companies account for more than half of ICANN’s revenue

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2020, Domain Policy

While 3,207 companies contributed to ICANN’s $141 million of revenue in its last fiscal year, just eight of them were responsible for more than half of it, according to figures just released by ICANN.

The first two entries on the list will come as no surprise to anyone — they’re .com money-mill Verisign and runaway registrar market-leader GoDaddy, together accounting for more than $56 million of revenue.

Registries and registrars pay ICANN a mixture of fixed fees and transaction fees, so the greater the number of adds, renews and transfers, the more money gets funneled into ICANN’s coffers.

It’s perhaps interesting that this top-contributors list sees a few companies that are paying far more in fixed, per-gTLD fees than they are in transaction fees.

Binky Moon, the vehicle that holds 197 of Donuts’ 242 gTLD contracts, is the third-largest contributor at $5.2 million. But $4.9 million of that comes from the annual $25,000 fixed registry fee.

Only 14 of Binky’s gTLDs pass the 50,000-name threshold where transaction fees kick in.

It’s pretty much the same story at Google Registry, formally known as Charleston Road Registry.

Google has 46 gTLDs, so is paying about $1.1 million a year in fixed fees, but only three of them have enough regs (combined, about one million names) to pass the transaction fees threshold. Google’s total funding was almost $1.4 million.

Not quite on the list is Amazon, which has 55 mostly unlaunched gTLDs and almost zero registrations. It paid ICANN $1.3 million last year, just to sit on its portfolio of dormant strings.

The second and third-largest registrars, Namecheap and Tucows respectively, each paid about $1.7 million last year.

The only essentially single-TLD company on the list is Public Interest Registry, which runs .org. Despite having 10 million domains under management, it paid ICANN less than half of Binky’s total last year.

The anomaly, which may be temporary, is ShortDot, the company that runs .icu, .cyou and .bond. It paid ICANN $1.6 million, which would have been almost all transaction fees for .icu, which peaked at about 6.5 million names earlier this year.

Here’s the list:

VeriSign, Inc.$45,565,544
GoDaddy.com, LLC$10,678,376
Binky Moon, LLC$5,231,898
Public Interest Registry$2,515,416
NameCheap, Inc.$1,755,932
Tucows Domains Inc.$1,747,648
ShortDot SA$1,643,103
Charleston Road Registry Inc.$1,385,356

Combined, the total is over $70.5 million.

The full spreadsheet of all 3,000+ contributors can be found over here.

Floodgates, open! Trademark Clearinghouse now supports .com

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Services

The Trademark Clearinghouse has added .com to the roster of TLDs supported by its infringement notification service.

The Deloitte-managed service recently announced the change to its Ongoing Notification Service, which came into effect late last month.

The update means TMCH subscribers will receive alerts whenever a .com domain is registered that contains their trademark, helping them to decide whether to pursue enforcement actions such as UDRP.

Unlike the ICANN-mandated 90-day Trademark Claims period that accompanies the launch of each new gTLD, the registrant herself does not receive an alert of possible infringement at point of registration.

The service, which is not regulated by ICANN, is still free to companies that have their marks registered in the TMCH, which charges an extra dollar for every variation of a mark the holder wishes to monitor.

Such services have been commercially available from the likes of MarkMonitor for 20 years or more. The TMCH has been offering it for new gTLDs since they started launching at the end of 2013.

With the .com-shaped gaping hole now plugged, two things could happen.

First, clients may find a steep increase in the number of alerts they receive — .com is still the biggest-selling and in volume terms the most-abused TLD.

Second, commercial providers of similar services now find themselves competing against a free rival with an ICANN-enabled captive audience.

The upgrade comes at the tail end of the current wave of the new gTLD program. With the .gay launch out of the way and other desirable open TLDs tied up in litigation, there won’t be much call for TMCH’s core services for the next few years.

It also comes just a couple months after the .com zone file started being published on ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, but I expect that’s just a coincidence.

Verisign measures the industry’s lockdown bump

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2020, Domain Registries

The domain name industry added a net 400,000 extra domain registrations in the second quarter, when compared to the same quarter a year ago.

That’s according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief, which is arguably the most comprehensive data on how domain names fared while much of the developed world was subject to coronavirus lockdown.

The second quarter of 2020 ended with 370.1 million regs across all TLDs, up by 3.3 million sequentially and 15.3 million year over year, Verisign said.

That compares to a Q2 2019 increase of 2.9 million domains.

ccTLDs appear — at least at first glance — to have performed particularly strongly, adding a net 2.6 million regs to end June at 160 million. That compared to Q2 2019 net adds of 1.9 million.

Unfortunately, those numbers include the free ccTLD .tk, which never deletes a domain, and that space saw 2.4 million adds in the quarter, dramatically damaging the optics for ccTLDs as a whole.

New gTLDs as a whole fared poorly, losing a net 600,000 names during the period, to end Q2 at 31.6 million.

Most of that dip is attributable to the fast-selling new gTLD .icu, which lost 400,000 domains during the quarter due to the effects of its first junk drop.

Verisign’s own .com was up by at 1.4 million names to 148.7 million at the end of June; .net was flat at 13.4 million.

The company sold 1.1 million more domains in Q2 2020 than it did in Q2 2019.

You can read the Q2 DNIB here (pdf).

The $135 million battle for .web could be won in weeks

Afilias is to get its day in “court” to decide the fate of the .web gTLD just 10 days from now.

The registry is due to face off with ICANN before an Independent Review Process panel in a series of virtual hearings beginning August 3.

The IRP complaint was filed late 2018 as the endgame of Afilias’ attempt to have the results of the July 2016 .web auction overturned.

You’ll recall that Verisign secretly bankrolled the winning bidder, a new gTLD investment vehicle called Nu Dot Co, to the tune of $135 million, causing rival bidders to cry foul.

If that win was vacated, Afilias could take control of .web with its second-place bid.

Afilias claims that ICANN broke its own rules by refusing to thoroughly analyze whether NDC had a secret sugar daddy, something DI first reported on two weeks before the auction.

It has put forward the entirely plausible argument that Verisign splashed out what amounts to about a month’s .com revenue on .web in order to bury it and fortify its .com mindshare monopoly against what could be its most formidable competitor.

In the IRP case to date, ICANN has been acting as transparently as you’d expect when its legal team is involved.

It first redacted all the juiciest details from the Verisign-NDC “Domain Acquisition Agreement” and the presumably damaging testimony of one of its own directors, and more recently has been fighting Afilias’ demands for document discovery.

In March, the IRP panel ruled against ICANN’s protests on almost every count, ordering the org to hand over a mountain of documentation detailing its communications with Verisign and NDC and its internal deliberations around the time of the auction.

But the ace up ICANN’s sleeve may be an allegation made by Verisign that Afilias itself is the one that broke the auction’s rules.

Verisign has produced evidence that an Afilias exec contacted his NDC counterpart five days before the auction, breaking a “blackout period” rule so serious that violators could lose their applications.

While Afilias denies the allegation, the IRP panel ruled in March that Afilias must hand over copies of all communications between itself and rival bidders over the auction period.

We’re not likely to see any of this stuff until the panel issues its final declaration, of course.

In the past, IRP panels have taken as long as six or seven months after the final hearing to deliver their verdicts, but the most-recently decided case, Amazon v ICANN, was decided in just eight or nine weeks.