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Lowering the Boom on Those Deadbeats

Internet: Company is pulling the plug today on service providers who have failed to pay a $100 registration fee.


WASHINGTON — Thousands of Internet users could find themselves locked out of the global computer network today because their service providers haven't yet paid $100 fees to register the services' Internet addresses.

Few people know it, but a small Herndon, Va.-based company called Network Solutions Inc., operating under an agreement with the U.S. government, assigns the more than 400,000 nonmilitary "domain" addresses of the Internet--and has the power to cut them off.

Of those, as many as 25,000 domain holders have yet to pay a $100 registration fee for their domain names.

Domain names are a crucial part of the Internet's addressing system. They are seen in electronic mail addresses to the right of the "@" symbol and end with such strings as ".com" for commercial users, ".gov" for government users and ".edu" for schools.

A single domain name can handle many individual addresses--such as the 6 million people worldwide with America Online addresses that end in "" (AOL is paid up, a spokeswoman said.) Or it can be just one person. Regardless of how many people use a single domain, the fee that Network Solutions wants for each is the same.

Network Solutions announced last week that after trying to dun the deadbeats for months, it will suspend service to all that have not paid their fees.

What that means is this: The domain names will be removed from master lists the company transmits nightly to nine large computers scattered worldwide.

Computers on the Internet use those file servers like the white pages of a phone book to seek information on where to route messages.

"When we remove the names from service, if somebody tries to contact one of the names, they will get an error message," said Network Solutions spokesman David Graves.

Graves said he expects the impact of today's shut-offs on the whole Internet to be "barely noticeable" because most big domain operators have long since paid up. In a best-case scenario, he said, most of the delinquent registrants will turn out to have simply abandoned their domains, meaning there will be few messages interrupted.

Still, Graves said, "we remain concerned that suddenly someone will lose their ability to send or receive Internet traffic."

The shut-off pertains to roughly 10% of the 250,000 Internet domain names that people registered after Sept. 14, 1995, but failed to follow up with the $100 fee, which covers two years of service. That's the date when Internet users themselves, rather than taxpayers, began footing the bill for the cost of assigning Internet domain names. Domain holders who registered before Sept. 14 are required to pay annual renewal fees of $50 to Network Solutions.

Some may wonder how an obscure 150-employee company outside Washington became the toll collector for the Internet, which is beloved by users precisely because of the perception that nobody controls or regulates it.

"A lot of people ask, "Who died and made them king?' " conceded Beth Gaston, spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation, which oversees the agreement with Network Solutions.

Tony Rutkowski, vice president of Internet business development for General Magic Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., and former president of the Internet Society, says "That notion of the Internet being not controlled is utterly contrary to the reality. The reality is that it's more controlled by the government than telephone networks."

Domain registration used to be free, with taxpayer money covering the paperwork. The National Science Foundation, empowered to oversee nonmilitary use of the Internet, hired Network Solutions in 1993 to do the job. That was back in the Stone Age of the Internet, when there were but 8,700 registered domain names in the entire world. When the number of registrations exploded, however, the National Science Foundation ran out of federal funds to pay for the paperwork.

So the foundation created a fee system. Growth continued to surge beyond anyone's estimates: Today Network Solutions registers about 45,000 new names a month under a contract that runs until March 1998.

That makes the registration business a lucrative one for Network Solutions, which gets 70% of all fee revenue. The rest is to be distributed through the industry to keep the Internet humming--an industry committee is figuring out how.

"We have made every effort to contact these customers and their Internet service providers to resolve payment problems," said Network Solutions President Don Telage. "Our priority must be to support our paying customers rather than continue protracted attempts to collect overdue accounts from nonpaying customers."

People who get shut off today will have 60 days to pay and get back online. After that they'll lose their addresses entirely.

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