An address on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles or on Madison Avenue in New York is sure to dress up any business. Since paying the rent is the hard part, the formality of handing out addresses is left to the government.
But that logic does not apply on the Internet, a few companies are betting -- and two of them are asking investors to take the same gamble.
, are both planning to offer new shares to the public -- Network Solutions with a secondary offering and register.com with an $80 million initial offering -- presenting investors with a vexing question: Is this really a business?
Registering domain names is a simple transaction, a mere transfer of information that could easily be taken over by the government. As the companies get ready to raise millions in the stock market, it's unclear how the service could ever constitute a profitable enterprise -- and whether it should.
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
, a nonprofit corporation known by its acronym ICANN and formed to set policy for the assignment of domain names and introduce competition into the industry, has so far accredited 98 companies as registrars. Of those, 23 currently provide the service.
Network Solutions, the Herndon, Va.-based company that held a government-ordained monopoly in the industry until April 1999, has agreed to split into two distinct businesses. The first is a registry that maintains the database of domain names.
Network Solutions charges competitors, including register.com, $9 per domain name per year to use the registry. That amount dropped to $6 Saturday as part of an agreement with ICANN.
The second function, the registrar service, accepts and processes applications for domain names. This portion faces competition from the quickly multiplying list of approved registrars. Some are tiny operations with only a handful of employees; many are giant Internet companies like
Network Solutions announced on Dec. 22 that it would sell 1 million new shares. The next day, register.com filed with the
Securities and Exchange Commission
to raise $80 million selling an undisclosed number of shares.
"Right now, register.com is clearly the most viable No. 2 in the space," says David Scharf, analyst for
Banc of America Securities
, which hasn't done underwriting for Network Solutions and isn't underwriting register.com's offering. Scharf rates Network Solutions stock a buy.
Being No. 2 in the space seems impressive, considering Network Solutions' robust earnings and growth and dazzling, if volatile, stock performance. The company's shares were up 27 3/4, or 12%, to 265 1/2 in late trading Tuesday, more than five times above the 52-week low of 49 but off last month's 52-week high of 287 3/4.
But the existence of that business space -- and the need for registrars No. 2 through 98 -- is tenuous at best. register.com listed the reasons in its SEC filing:
The "U.S. government may, for any reason, reassess its decision to introduce competition into, or ICANN's role in overseeing, the domain name registration market; the Internet community may become dissatisfied with ICANN and refuse to recognize its authority or support its policies, which could create instability in the domain name registration system."
Because it is waiting to make an initial public offering, register.com is in a so-called quiet period, an abstention from discussing its business to avoid later accusations of falsely hyping the stock. A spokeswoman declined to comment on any aspect of the business.
But some of the risks the company outlined are clear already, even as the SEC mulls the proposal.
One recent feud, for example, calls into question the need for a registration industry.
The trouble started on Dec. 3, when some of ICANN's own domain names were up for renewal. The regulatory body renewed many single-letter domain names (a.net, b.com, etc.) through register.com, rather than through Network Solutions. ICANN keeps control over certain names -- including the single-letter ones -- that it feels should not be issued, for reasons varied and lost to history.
In addition, ICANN registered its own name,
, through register.com.
"I would have paid to have those transferred to me," said Larry Erlich, president of
, a small, Bensalem, Pa.-based registrar company. "It's bragging rights. That makes you look real special. It's like being the jogging machine in the White House."
The response from Michael Roberts, president of ICANN, came with an audible sigh:
"It was a routine issue, a business issue and they said we're going to spread it around," he said, noting that ICANN still has many names registered through Network Solutions. "Do I think there's any conflict of interest or any kind of bias? No."
Citing the quiet period, a register.com spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the issue. But Network Solutions, register.com's nemesis and the apparent victim of any such conspiracy, dismissed the argument.
"It's a nonissue," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, spokesman for Network Solutions. "We have 6.5 million domain names and we're not going to cry over spilt milk."
Such disputes over the registration process arise because academics and programmers, who had the Internet to themselves for 25 years before corporate America realized its potential commercial applications, closely follow and intercede in the domain name fracas, he said.
"Domain names has been the last bastion of the Internet community," O'Shaughnessy said. "The controversies over domain names for the average Joe on the street are difficult to understand."
Some registrars concede that all the carping is beyond even their comprehension.
"I don't understand the whole argument completely," says Jeff Rushton, director of marketing for
, a closely held Scottsdale, Ariz., Web site management business that was accredited as a registrar in September. "It's a big headache."
Rushton, whose company incorporates registrar services for the same reason banks offer notary services, said he sometimes wishes the government would handle the function.
Some consumer advocates are more blunt:
"It just cracks me up that people in the domain name industry think there's some value-added thing they do," said James Love, director of the
Consumer Project on Technology
, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization founded by
. "They imply that there's some great big industry you can build around domain name registration."
Noting that nearly every courtroom fight over domain names is at essence a trademark dispute, Love said the government should assign domain names as it does building addresses and license plates.
"It's so close to a government function, in a way you're setting yourself up for problems," he said. Each tiff between registrars seems to illustrate "how difficult it is for them to truly differentiate themselves."
register.com, for its part, said in SEC filings that it plans to differentiate itself by offering other services like email and Web hosting. Part of its appeal, the company appears to hope, will lie in lending Web neophytes a holding hand. But it faces rivals entering the registrar business -- like America Online -- that are already much better known for providing those services. (AOL currently forwards registration customers to
, a large Web hosting company.)
For now, the company's revenue comes from charging $70 for basic registration service and from selling advertisements.
If ICANN succeeds in creating a competitive registration industry, the potential profit margins will be nothing like Network Solutions' earnings from its time as a monopoly. They'll more closely resemble those of government functions like picking up the trash.
In fact, for many of register.com's foes, registrar service is less than a side business. It's a freebie.
"We're going to go into the business as a registrar of giving the domain names away to promote our hosting function," says Rushton, the iTool.com marketing director. The company eats the cost of registering domain names because "we just want to acquire customers."