Irish firm wants to snap up .africa if ICANN says it can

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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is processing applications by a wide variety of companies and organisations for the right to operate new domain names as an alternative to the ubiquitous dot-com.

Among the proposals were several for .biz, .kids and .tel, but only one company asked for the rights to .africa.

"Certainly we do not anticipate that .africa could be one of the largest TLDs [top level domains], but we do feel it has a great deal of importance within the [domain name system]," says Ed Sweeney, a representative of Rathbawn Computers, the Irish company that applied for the suffix.

Rathbawn Computers is owned by Capital Networks, which operates domain registration in the US, Ireland and Australia.

ICANN, the non-profit organisation set up to manage the domain name system and allocation of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, resolved in July to create new domain suffixes to alleviate the dot-com crunch that saw popular domain names become the centre of million-dollar court cases.

To apply for the right to operate any new suffix, hopefuls had to shell out a $50 000 (R385 000) non-refundable fee. Andrew McLaughlin, ICANN`s chief policy officer, says the fee may have discouraged applications from African countries with unfavourable exchange rates, but that it was a necessity.

"As a small non-profit organisation, ICANN has no choice but to make its activities self-funding. The cost of the new TLD process, which has been going on for nearly two years, plus the cost of subjecting the applications to rigorous review, adds up to a not-insubstantial sum."

The cost factor

He also says an organisation that could not afford the fee probably could not afford the suffix.

"The cost of establishing and running a registry operation is quite significant. If the application fee is a strong deterrent, the applicant may not have the technical and financial resources to administer a TLD-registry."

Rathbawn Computers rates its chances of winning .africa as good, and says the suffix would benefit the continent as a whole.

"We think that Africa is in a relatively unique situation," says Sweeney. "It has a large population which can obviously benefit greatly from a stable and efficient domain registry as this would allow e-commerce and Internet development to flourish in Africa."

Existing country codes, he says, are often not a good solution for those who want to identify their sites as African.

"There are many small African nations, many economically and developmentally challenged. The CCTLDs [country code top level domains] which service Africa are numerous and, in cases, extremely inefficient and not overly cost-competitive. Basically, we feel that the majority don`t comply with best practices and that the sheer number represents an obstacle to unified electronic commerce."

Calvin Browne, a director of the non-profit UniForum that operates the CCTLD, says having control of .africa vested in a company operating outside the continent does not present technical problems.

"The only thing I would say is that we are again exporting dollars, and that is a great pity where African people already have to pay the US for our connectivity and content."

Sweeney says Rathbawn, if successful, would encourage the formation of local entities to sell .africa domain names and would approach CCTLD operators to participate.

Applications are to be opened for public comment after details are posted on the ICANN Web site. An earlier schedule estimated that a decision on the allocation of suffixes could be made before next year, but an updated version only makes provision for a report on the applications at a date to be announced later.

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