March 11, 1997 4:30 PM PST

A million domains, half unpaid

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On the Net there are a million names, but apparently only half of them are paid for.

Network Solutions today announced its millionth domain name registration. As part of its duties under the InterNIC cooperative agreement and grant, the government contractor exclusively registers Net names in the most common commercial domains. About 88 percent of those registrations were in the ".com" domain.

According to the InterNIC's own records, however, the company has collected only half the $100 fees due. One million second-level domain name registrations should have brought in $100 million.

Network Solutions is required to bank 30 percent of the fees it collects in a trust fund, but as of the end of January, that fund had only accrued $15 million, or 30 percent of $50 million--half of what a million registrations would net.

However, spokesman Chris Clough said those numbers can be deceiving because anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 of those names are still in the 160-day collection process. At best, that still leaves 250,000 active domain names that have not been paid for or shut down.

The millionth registration comes at a time when the company is under pressure from would-be competitors and would-be regulators who are scrutinizing how Internet resources are handed out. Critics and potential competitors think they could do better if only given the chance.

"What does it take to run a registry, anyway?" questioned Chris Ambler, president of Image Online Design, a company that today registers names in the ".web" alternate domain.

Ambler and others like him are challenging Network Solutions' near-monopoly on domain names by setting up an alternate naming infrastructure. The Extended Domain Network Service consortium, or eDNS, recognizes but extends the National Science Foundation's naming system, which Network Solutions administers.

The consortium hopes to replace the nine computers that act like switchboard operators, connecting familiar domain names such as "coke.com" with long numbers that identify the exact physical location of an email or Web site server on the network. These "root servers" propagate this database throughout the Internet and are controlled by another National Science Foundation contractor, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.

Network Solutions' naming business is under fire on another front as well. A competing committee sponsored by NSF contractor IANA has drafted a different plan for expanding competition in domain name registration after the National Science Foundation withdraws its support next year. And the foundation's inspector general is set to make public an investigation of how domain names are assigned.

In addition, the Federal Communications Commission has hosted some informal discussions with business leaders about taking the oversight of Net names and numbers from the foundation, which admits that it's not equipped to regulate the Net.

"I think it makes a lot of sense to at least consider having the FCC take on this particular job," FCC chairman Reed Hundt said in a recent interview. "I'm not sure that we've really got a good system at work."

Meanwhile, Network Solutions is waging a public relations campaign that seems aimed at keeping and expanding its Internet businesses. Along with it millionth registration, the company today announced a new service that allows selected Internet Service Providers to register ".com" and ".net" domain names directly in the InterNIC database. Some Net users have complained that Network Solutions is being paid twice, once by their ISP and once by themselves, when the ISP takes responsibility for registering a domain.

With only half of the $30 million dollars due the domain name trust fund on deposit, Network Solutions is already proposing to spend the cash on the American Registry of Internet Numbers. The proposed registry would charge for Internet numbers, which are now issued without charge because of a government subsidy that runs out next year. The National Science Foundation has yet to approve the plan.

The millionth customer was awarded with a free registration.

 

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