The Industry Standard: Intelligence for the Information Economy

VeriSign Is Coming to Your Phone

Jul 19 2001 06:01 AM PDT

The domain-name registrar says it will start a phone-activated service, and charge businesses to be included in its phone registry. The plan is likely to rile the company's harsh critics.
As if controlling the most popular domain names on the Web were not enough, VeriSign has decided it wants to move into voice-activated telephone service as well.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which maintains the registry for the ".com," ".net" and ".org" domains, announced a pilot program Thursday for a system called Global Voice Registry that would enable users to speak a business name into their conventional or mobile telephone and be connected automatically. The service will be free to customers and the phone companies that offer it; VeriSign would charge businesses to be included in the registry, just as it now charges holders of Internet domain names. The actual call would be charged as usual by the phone-service provider.

The announcement is likely to fuel criticism of VeriSign, which has been accused of maintaining a monopoly on the domain-name allocation system and of predatory pricing aimed at keeping potential competitors at bay. In May, the U.S. Department of Commerce approved a controversial agreement between the company and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that extends VeriSign's monopoly on the ".com" top-level domain for another six years. That agreement overrides an earlier pact under which VeriSign pledged to divest either its control of the registry or its registrar functions by May 2001. VeriSign has more than 30 million domain names in its database and charges an annual $6 fee for each of them. As part of the new agreement, VeriSign will open the ".net" registry in June 2005 and the ".org" system in 2002.

VeriSign's competitors and critics, which include rival domain-name sellers such as NeuStar and Tucows, point out that VeriSign has a dual function: selling domain names and maintaining the authoritative registry of those names along with their corresponding Internet protocol numbers. That's a bit like allowing the New York Stock Exchange to control the allocation of seats and to sell shares in companies, critics maintain.

VeriSign also faces a separate, but related, struggle over a proposed new system for linking telephone numbers to Internet addresses. The new system, known as "enum," would allow users to link their conventional phone numbers to an Internet address that would funnel messages to any communications device. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the protocol engineering and development arm of the Internet, has proposed a set of standards for the phone-Net database, and a range of government agencies are considering attempting to regulate the system. VeriSign has a joint pilot project with Telcordia, which would comply with the IETF standards, undergoing testing already and wants to keep government regulators out of it. VeriSign has its own, alternative system in testing already and wants to keep government regulators out of it.

VeriSign executive Pete Nielsen, who directs the initiative, says the Global Voice Registry system is a much simpler proposition. "We're just trying to improve telephony, for everyone," he said. "You say the business name, you get connected. No setup required. This passes the five-second explanation test."

Still to be determined are how many businesses will actually sign up to be included in the system VeriSign promises more than a million for the pilot program, which will be launched early in 2002, as well as the participation of every business in the U.S. by the time the registry goes into full operation and how much it will cost them to do so. Carriers also must ensure that customers have a clear understanding of the costs of the call, for instance, if a local business is in a different area code. However the service fares, it's unlikely to assuage the ire of VeriSign's many detractors.

"VeriSign is in the database commodity business," said Judith Oppenheimer, publisher of ICB Tollfree News, an online publication that covers telecommunications and the domain-name system. "It would like to run the numbering as well as the naming space, sans [International Telecommunications Union] or ICANN oversight."