Firms fight for Africa domain name rights

By Macharia Kamau

The process to getting a dotafrica (.africa) generic top level domain getting its own unique is muddled in confusion and politics that might derail efforts geared towards Africa identifier on the Internet.

The campaign is being dogged by controversies as to who has been endorsed by the African Union to bid for the administration rights of dotafrica. AU has been at the forefront of the dotafrica campaign and even candidly refers to the domain name as its baby.

Two firms – UniForum ZA Central Registry (ZACR) and Dot Connect Africa – have applied to the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN – a global Internet governance body) to administer the domain name in Africa.

High stakes
They have however been at each other, both laying claim to having the blessings of AU and each accusing the other of bending the rules and even manipulating politicians at the AU level for political backing. The endorsement is an ICANN requirement.

The bids by ZACR and Dot Connect Africa are besides efforts that the AU had itself expressed interest in applying to ICANN for the rights to administer the dotafrica domain name, arguing that it is a community name and that should not be administered by private sector players. It however failed to meet the application deadline.

Neil Dundas executive director ZACR said his firm has mobilised 70 per cent of African governments to write to ICANN, endorsing the firm’s bid to be the domain’s registrar.

The ICANN policies stipulate that any firm applying to administer a regional top level domain – like .africa, .eu and .asia – must have the backing of at least 60 per cent of countries in that region.

Dundas, who spoke at an East Africa Internet governance forum last week, said the firm is working towards getting a hundred per cent of the African countries rallying behind its bid.

“So far, 39 countries including Kenya have written to ICANN expressing their support to ZACR to run the dotafrica registry,” he said.

He added that the political crisis in a few countries in North Africa may have slowed the response from governments in the region but is optimistic they will back the company. The firm also cites an endorsement by AU’s commission on energy and infrastructure.

Sophia Bekele, executive director Dot Connect Africa however said her firm was first to be endorsed by AU in 2009 – an endorsement that she said still stands.

She even has a letter signed by Jean Ping who has been the chair of the African Union Commission. Ping was the AUC chair till last week when he was replaced by Dlamini-Zuma, a wife to South African president Jacob Zuma. In the letter, Ping offered AU’s assistance in mobilising African ministers and governments to rally behind Dot Connect Africa in getting the rights to administer dotafrica.

A dotafrica domain name would mean Africa finally following in the footsteps of regions like Europe and Asia that have for some time now been using .eu and .asia TLDs respectively.

Strings attached
Top level domains (TLDs) are identifier strings attached at the end of an email or web page address like .ke, .com or .org. The dotafrica domain name is expected to give identity to African institutions or multinationals with a vast presence on the continent.

Despite their differences, both parties are of agreement that a dotafrica domain name would be beneficial for the continent. Other than being a unique identifier for organisations operating in Africa, it is expected to give administrators of country code TLDs (CCTLD – like .ke, .ug or .tz) competition, which is expected to bring down prices.

Bekele said country code TLD’s have not attracted a lot of registration due to poor marketing, support infrastructure and high pricing. A .ke domain name costs about Sh4,000 per year and there are about 20,000 registered names, compared to the hundreds of thousands of websites by local firms and individuals.

“These factors give the subscriber no choice but to take a .com or .net. What .africa brings to the market is not to replace the ccTLD’s but rather bring a market disruptive effect that will create competition,” she said.
ZACR said if it wins the bid, it would charge $18 per (Sh1,500) per year.

“If a company can trace its online presence to dotafrica, then it shows the Pan African nature of the business, this will help upcoming entrepreneurs with regional ambitions,” said Dundas.

More benefits
Bekele noted that while the domain name was suited for the entire market, it would significantly benefit large corporations that had presence in several African countries. There are local companies that have branches across the region and are eyeing expansion beyond East Africa.

“A dotafrica domain name is important since it gives a Pan-African visibility. A localised domain name that is country-specific will only have country-level implications in terms of market reach and coverage, but a dotafrica domain name will have continental reach and association in terms of marketing and branding possibilities,” she said.

“Anyone with an association with Africa can use it. For example, the United Nations can register to show its projects and activities in Africa.

Corporates – both local and multinationals – with operations in several African countries can use it show operational presence on the continent,” she said.