Today's the day - Domain registration open to challengers

Today marks the beginning of competition in one of the hottest businesses on the Internet -- the registration of domain names.

Currently, the American firm Network Solutions holds an exclusive agreement with the U.S. Government to register the Internet addresses with the most popular suffixes: .com, .net and .org. But that all changes today, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organisation that oversees various Internet infrastructure projects, releases the names of the first five "test-bed" registrars that will compete with NSI for domain registrations.

Four million domain names have already been registered, and NSI registers new names at a rate of more than 600,000 a quarter. It costs $70 (£43) to register a domain name for two years, and companies can charge more for additional services. "This is the first chink in the armour of monopoly," said Martin Burack, executive director of the Internet Society, a group that advises on Internet policy. "How far this will go and where it will lead is really unclear."

NSI says it has gone to great lengths to comply with the US Department of Commerce's requirements for the changeover to competition, most notably spending $20m to open its registry -- the database of registered domain names -- to competing registrars. "We've made a pretty intensive effort to move to a shared model," said J. Christopher Clough, NSI's vice president for corporate communications. Clough predicted that telecommunications companies, as well as former resellers of NSI services, could be among those chosen to test the new shared registry.

In a controversial arrangement, NSI will continue maintaining the shared registry, even as it is competing with other companies to sell its services as a registrar. To ensure the free-market process still applies, the Department of Commerce has required NSI to split its registrar and registry duties into separate business units.

The test-bed phase will continue until the end of October, giving officials time to work the bugs out of the registry system. After that, any registrar certified by ICANN will be given access to the registry. ICANN finalised the requirements for registrars at a meeting in Singapore in March, and published the results on its Web site. ICANN said it chose the five test-bed registrars on the basis of their technical capabilities, the diversity of the geography and languages they covered, and the variety of their customers.