The bids are in from companies that want to be the next registrar of .net -- the world's fourth-largest Internet domain.
Bidders from around the world submitted applications this week to the organization that oversees the Internet's address system. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) of Marina del Rey, Calif., plans to choose the next registrar of Internet domains that end in .net sometime in March, subject to approval by the Commerce Department.
The registry is the master list of the roughly 5 million .net addresses. There are 35 million addresses registered under the better-known .com, but .net plays a critical role in Internet traffic.
The current .net registrar, VeriSign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., estimates that $700 billion annually in Internet commerce -- nearly 30 percent of the total -- travels through the domain. Nearly 150 billion e-mails pass through .net addresses every day. Internet customers of Comcast, AT&T and EarthLink all are given e-mail addresses ending in .net.
The winning applicant will take in roughly $30 million a year in registration fees.
VeriSign Inc. is among the bidders in the .net competition, and some major technology companies are supporting the company's bid. But critics have long questioned its broad role in managing the Internet: VeriSign also is the "domain operator" for all .com addresses.
A domain operator's job is to maintain the registry containing information that Internet switching systems need to direct traffic to intended recipients. If the .net list had errors or became unavailable, parts of the Internet could become inaccessible.
"Not only is it home to a lot of e-mail and Web sites, but . . . a lot of the plumbing of the Internet uses dot-net," said Richard Tindal, vice president of registry for Sterling, Va.-based NeuStar Inc., one of the companies bidding to run the domain. NeuStar, whose main business is maintaining the registry of U.S. telephone numbers, has partnered with Japan Registry Services Co., which operates Japan's .jp Internet domain.
ICANN -- created in the late 1990s under the auspices of the U.S. government to introduce competition to the domain-name system -- would not say how many bids it received. But it expected no more than six, given the relatively few companies with the technology to handle the task.
Although the bids had to be submitted by Tuesday night, many of the competitors, including VeriSign, have been touting their proposals for months.