.mobile domain contenders in for a nasty shock

Some of the biggest players in the mobile industry, including Nokia Corp., Vodafone Group PLC and Microsoft Corp., have got a joint bid in to the Internet regulator ICANN for a top level domain aimed at mobiles. But they could be in for a nasty surprise in the form of competing proposals.

According to the big guns, who announced their bid Wednesday, what might become the ".mobile" domain (its name, as well as its existence, is up to ICANN) would "streamline" the mobile Internet experience and the group has promised to set up a joint venture to manage the domain if ICANN grants it.

However, there are worries that the group may be too dominated by mobile operators who might try to ring-fence parts of the mobile domain, controlling and profiting from it.

Applications close for this round of new TLDs -- the first since 2000 -- on Monday, March 15, and ICANN expects to issue the new domains in about six months. The process is explained on the ICANN site, and promises to allow more public discussion than the previous round, which issued info, .biz, .museum, .aero, .coop, .name and .pro after a month's deliberation.

Spokespeople for the NokiFoneSoft bid seemed blissfully unaware that anyone might have any problems with the bid: "We would expect to be the only bid for a mobile domain," said Vodafone spokesperson Janine Young. "We have been talking with the rest of the industry with regard to this. This is a broad industry initiative, with nine companies involved, and we expect more to join over the coming months. It's about getting the industry together."

Although she was unaware of other bids, there is every likelihood that there will be one or more. One could come from the mTLD Alliance, which issued a proposal in July 2003, and has gone rather quiet since.

The bid would most likely involve Telnic Ltd., a company which put together a bid for a mobile domain last time round, in 2000. This bid proposed "the exclusive use of text addressing in the mobile communications name-space", and Telnic has plugged away since then as chair of the UMTS Forum's Mobile TLD Working Group, working with, among others, Nokia.

The application could turn out to be more politically charged than its proponents hope, because the mobile domain is not just another Internet domain like .biz, extending the address space. Instead, it is a new text-based user friendly addressing scheme for phones and mobile devices, which could replace and extend the power of phone numbers -- just as the current Internet domain scheme did for numeric Internet addresses, replacing 207.46.245.214 with "microsoft.com", for instance.

The details of the NokiFoneSoft bid, or any competing bids, are not available yet. The full proposals will be published on ICANN's site and discussed. Things to watch for are whether the joint venture operates independently of the operators, and whether domains can be bought freely or only in certain ring-fenced areas (say "name.vodafone.mobile" for instance). It should also allow the development of Wi-Fi based networks, and services that operate in both fixed and mobile worlds.

Any counter-bid is going to be a serious one, and not a "save it for the hippies" attempt to put a spanner in the works. ICANN charges a non-refundable US$45,000 for an application, and the total cost of developing a proper bid is reckoned to run into millions.

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