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On a Tiny Island, Catchy Web Name Sparks a Battle

By Christopher Rhoads

The arrival of the Internet brought a rare bit of good fortune to Niue, a tiny, impoverished island in the South Pacific.

Its national Internet suffix, dot-nu, has become a big hit in Sweden, as “nu” means “now” in Swedish. An entrepreneur in Medfield, Mass., named Bill Semich, who acquired the rights to operate and sell the dot-nu domain name in the late 1990s, has plowed some of the profits from Sweden into making Niue (pronounced New-Ay) the world’s first nation with free wireless Internet for all of its citizens, about 1,200 people.

But that success has thrown the island, which is about 1 1/2 times the area of Washington, D.C., into turmoil. Some officials charge they were cheated out of what they now see as an important and profitable national asset. “This is a huge issue of national development for us,” says Richard Hipa, the managing director of Telecom Niue. “This is something that we should have run, and we were robbed of that.”

The island’s government has locked horns with the 62-year-old Mr. Semich, whose company is called .NU Domain Ltd., demanding a bigger slice of profits and more control over the domain name. The fight prompted a nearly three-year independent investigation launched by the government and became the dominant issue in the island’s elections last year.

“The fact that we are making this extremely large and voluntary commitment to Internet service on Niue is unprecedented,” says Mr. Semich from his spartan Medfield office. A small painting of a Niuean landscape adorns one wall. He argues that what he provides is worth more than cash. “To take that and turn it on its head and say, ‘You should pay more,’ misses the whole point.”

As Internet use explodes, governments around the world, particularly in developing nations, are discovering the power of their once-obscure country-code domain names. They have begun to see the names as a source of revenue, a way to increase their presence in cyberspace and as part of their national sovereignty — like the highway system or phone company — to be managed as they see fit.

More than a dozen governments or quasigovernment organizations have gained control of their country-code domain names in recent years. Usually the names have been wrested from individuals managing them since the 1990s — often before the governments were aware of the Internet.


In 2004, France passed a law to legitimize its control over domain names of its overseas territories, such as Mayotte (dot-yt) and St. Pierre and Miquelon (dot-pm). A couple of years ago, the Cayman Islands obtained control of its domain name, dot-ky, from a U.S. entrepreneur marketing the name in Kentucky. He had sold and, among others. Kazakhstan and South Africa have also battled to win back control of their domain names.

The body that makes such decisions, an arm of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, in recent years has recognized each nation’s “sovereign control” of its domain name, according to a policy statement. Previously, the organization, based in Marina del Rey, Calif., would transfer control of a domain-name suffix only if it were “in the best interests of the Internet community” and if both parties agreed to the change, according to its statements.

After slowing in the wake of the Internet bust six years ago, domain-name registrations have soared. The global total jumped by nearly half to 94 million in the two years that ended last Dec. 31, according to Zooknic, an Internet research firm based in Louisville, Ky. Much of the growth is coming in developing nations. The number of domain names using China’s dot-cn and India’s dot-in each more than doubled last year, according to Zooknic, well ahead of the 40% increase of names using dot-com.

Jonathan Postel Country-code domain names were conceived in the early 1980s by Jon Postel, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, as a way to help organize addressing of the Internet.

Each computer connected to the Internet is given an identifying series of numbers, called an Internet protocol address. To make an IP address more user-friendly, each one has a corresponding domain name. Just as dot-com was set up for commercial entities, country-code domain names were to identify users by country.

Reflecting the collegial and informal nature of the fledgling Internet community at the time, Mr. Postel assigned operation of the domain names to trusted friends or people he knew. They were mostly like-minded academics and computer engineers who performed the work on a volunteer basis.

The administrative contacts for each country code had to reside in the given country and understand they were “performing a public service on behalf of the Internet community,” Mr. Postel wrote in a 1994 memorandum codifying the domain-name structure. Typically, he decided who would manage country codes for distant nations on a first-come, first-served basis.

In the early and mid-1990s, this was happening below the radar of many governments, some of which viewed the Internet as a passing fad.

Still, Mr. Postel understood the political ramifications of country-code domain names. To avoid having to determine what constitutes a country and make up domain names for them, he used the two-letter codes from a list, called ISO 3166, compiled for mail and other purposes by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization. Any territorial entity on the list would get a domain name.

Many of those listed weren’t countries. Some were homes only to penguins. The Indian Ocean made the list, dot-io. Specks of land belonging to other countries were included, such as the United Kingdom’s Pitcairn Island, a South Pacific island whose population consists of 50 descendants of the mutineers of the HMS Bounty and their Tahitian wives. (Niue governs itself in “free association” with New Zealand.)

Mr. Postel, who died in 1998, viewed the domain names as merely an administrative convenience. But others, such as Mr. Semich, the head of the company at odds with Niue’s government, saw a business opportunity.
“It never occurred to Postel that the value of the revenue generated by domain names could be greater than the value of the Internet service itself,” Mr. Semich says.

As an editor for a computer trade magazine in the 1990s, Mr. Semich followed the Internet’s early development closely, taking note of the skyrocketing demand for new Internet domain names. He also plunged into the Internet policy debates at the time that included the creation in 1998 of Icann, which took over the duties handled by Mr. Postel.

That same year, Mr. Semich quit his magazine job and got into the business full time. He started a small software company offering clients the ability to have domain names in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. And he trolled about for available domain names that seemed marketable. He settled on dot-nu, thinking it would be a catchy domain name for U.S. companies looking for a cheaper alternative to dot-com. At the time, a new dot-com address cost $100 to register for two years. After lining up the necessary servers, contacts on the ground in Niue and approval from Icann — a process that took several months in all — Mr. Semich was up and running.

Catchy Codes

Icann required only information that he had the technical capabilities to manage a domain name. There was no fee. But Mr. Semich did spend about $100,000 on servers and other equipment to get the business started.

The expression of interest from an American entrepreneur was at first warmly welcomed by Niue, which hasn’t had many breaks over the years.

With its closest neighbor, Tonga, more than 350 miles away, Niue ranks among the most remote places on Earth. British explorer Captain James Cook got a bad taste of the island when he visited in 1774. After shouting natives chased him and his crew away, he dubbed the place “Savage Island.” Subsequent settlers were surprised to find vegetation on the chunk of coral rising from the sea, calling the place Niue, which in the local language means, “Look, there’s a coconut.” When Niue finally built an airport in 1971, thousands of Niueans used the opportunity to emigrate.

Along with selling local stamps and fishing rights, the biggest source of revenue for islanders is foreign aid. The government is by far the largest employer. In January 2004, a mammoth cyclone devastated much of Niue, prompting even more to emigrate.

When Mr. Semich arrived on the scene, he says Telecom Niue wasn’t interested in the domain name or in offering Internet service, because it feared the Internet would sap its revenue from faxes. Mr. Hipa of Telecom Niue says the government was just beginning to formulate an Internet policy but believed the domain name was just “like an international dialing code prefix.”

Mr. Semich hired two expatriates on the island: Richard St. Clair, a former Peace Corps volunteer from San Jose, Calif., and a New Zealander named Stafford Guest, who runs a hotel and bar. Their chief task has been to erect Internet service on the island.

Mr. Semich’s initial plan to market dot-nu to U.S. customers mostly flopped. Dot-com’s big lead over other domain-name suffixes made dot-com even more appealing for new users. But before long, Mr. Semich found that some Europeans, in particular Swedes, took a liking to dot-nu.

At the time, Sweden’s country-code domain name, dot-se, was reserved only for companies incorporated in Sweden, steering the country’s burgeoning online population to alternatives, like dot-nu.

Today, more than 80% of Mr. Semich’s business is in Sweden, prompting him to open a sales and marketing office in Stockholm. A Swedish parachutist club has registered the Swedish equivalent of “,” and an advertisement site for Vicks Vaporub uses the equivalent of “” Some Swedes believe the domain name is Swedish. Mr. Semich charges $30 a year for a domain name, with a minimum two-year commitment. There are about 110,000 domain names using the dot-nu suffix, he says.

Mr. Semich says his private company has annual revenue in the low single-digit millions. He donates 15% to 30% of that to a charitable arm of his operation geared toward developing the Internet on Niue. The money has gone toward an Internet cafe, tower construction, a building designed to protect Internet equipment from cyclones and a $6,000 monthly fee for a telecom link to New Zealand, among other expenses. Between the charity and the business, Mr. Semich employs 12.

Not Getting Rich

Mr. Semich says the venture hasn’t made him wealthy. He lives in the same house he did before he started. His visions of turning his non-Roman alphabet domain-name software into a big business vanished with the Internet bust, which forced him to lay off about a dozen full- and part-time employees at the time. Still, managing dot-nu has proved to be a sustainable business, he says.

By June 2003, the company was able to offer Niueans free wireless Internet, via a series of towers on the island. For many, it not only opened them to the outside world but also enabled an inexpensive way to keep in regular contact with friends and relatives who had left the island years before. The company also got involved in civic affairs on the island, sponsoring the rugby team and Niue’s contestant in a regional beauty pageant.
Nevertheless, four months later, a new telecom minister on the island claimed the operators lacked a proper license. He shut down the service for workers in the government — the largest group of users. The minister, Toke Talagi, requested Icann transfer management of the domain name to the government, charging Mr. Semich and his team with “neo-colonialism” and ignoring the rights of the government.

The government hired an American adviser to help lobby Icann for the change. The adviser charged Mr. Semich with reneging on a promise to give 25% of his profits to the government and, worse, with knowingly registering pornography Web sites. Mr. Semich denies the accusation. The government launched an independent investigation into the allegations.

Mr. Semich says there was never such an agreement. His company had voluntarily agreed to provide free Internet access to the island, which it was doing, he says. He points out that the operators of other domains don’t pay a slice of their proceeds back to governments.

“We agreed to provide free wireless Internet to the government,” he says. “There has never been any other agreement.”

Nevertheless, on strongly Christian Niue, the charges that the country code was being used for pornography sites created a firestorm. Mr. Guest, one of Mr. Semich’s local hires, says the bad publicity hurt business in his motel, the Coral Gardens, forcing him to shut down its restaurant. “They felt we were taking advantage of the nation,” says Mr. Guest, whose wife is from Niue. “We were devastated by some of the things being said of us.”
But soon citizens began to miss the free Internet access. The matter dominated the election for premier in March of last year, where Mr. Talagi, the telecom minister, was considered the favorite. Just days before the vote, the incumbent premier overruled Mr. Talagi by ordering that Mr. Semich’s company could use government-owned towers to extend the Internet to several villages. Mr. Talagi was narrowly defeated.

“The people stood up and said, ‘We want our Wi-Fi,’ ” says Mr. St. Clair, who came to Niue with the Peace Corps in 1994 as a bulldozer mechanic and stayed on to head the construction of the wireless Internet service, called Wi-Fi.
The winner of the election, Mititaiagimene Young Vivian, has taken a more accommodating approach toward Mr. Semich’s company. The independent investigation, which ended late last year, found nothing improper about Mr. Semich’s business or about how he became manager of the domain name in the first place. No evidence exists to support the pornography charge

Still, Premier Young Vivian says he wants to meet with Mr. Semich soon to discuss the domain name. “The key issue is that reasonable benefits should come to Niue,” he says. “That is the goal of any leader.”

Write to Christopher Rhoads at
Copyright ©2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

On a Tiny Island, Catchy Web Name Sparks a Battle

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Thorns in paradise

Fear of competition destroys a WiFi Eden in Niue

Francis Till

When its international telecommunications equipment was destroyed by Cyclone Heta early this year, outside sources — including Telecom NZ, the New Zealand Agency for International Development and the French government (which sent some $US80,000 worth of telecommunications equipment to the island, including a new satellite dish) — moved swiftly to restore government-owned Telecom Niue’s ability to function.

If its recent activities are a measure, however, the carrier’s principal concern will not be its ability to meet the service obligation that typically accompanies infrastructure monopolies, but its ability to maintain predatory revenue streams — even though its new infrastructure will have been provided largely free of charge.

Since the citizens of Niue are also, by virtue of their history, citizens of New Zealand, the issue of what Telecom Niue will do with that equipment — and how it will handle its internet interface — is a potentially very hot potato for Wellington, especially since much of the island’s reconstruction will be financed by Kiwi tax dollars.

Telecom Niue’s revenue depends largely on making users pay for even local calls and charging up to $1.60 a minute for calls to New Zealand, where some 20,000 Niueans live. Niue itself has a population said by the government in 2001 to be 1,700 and shrinking.

Although it does not make revenues public, a 2002 government policy document notes that Telecom Niue’s returns above cost are routinely creamed by government, even though they are theoretically set aside for capex and other network related expenses.

In that climate, the intrusion of a genuinely competitive telecommunications operation would be anathema, even if it served the government’s other, very widely touted tourismbuilding agenda by providing vital services.

And when the Internet Users Society of Niue (IUSN) came to be seen as a threat that is exactly what happened. The IUSN was developed in 1997 with the specific goal of providing free internet access to anyone on Niue using
unlicensed telecommunications spectrum technology known as 802.11, or WiFi. On its face, that shouldn’t be a sustainable business model but the effort was underwritten by part of the proceeds from the sale of domain space using the Niue country code suffix –.nu. Through a Massachusetts-based company, .NU Domain Ltd, an American technology entrepreneur named J. William Semich holds the rights to use — and sell addresses in — the .NU internet namespace. Since 1997, it has been returning a portion of its gains from registering .NU domains to the IUSN for use in bringing the island, and its population, online.

Along the way, the company and its charitable IUSN venture have also provided computers to schools and a host of other services and goods out of the proceeds of .NU sales. The company says there were over 100,000 .nu domains in use in late 2003, each of which generates about $US30 per year. It helps that “nu” happens to translate into “new” in Swedish, where sales are the most brisk, according to company officials.

Building on an island-wide intranet created by former Peace Corps volunteer Richard St. Clair, IUSN first brought e-mail to the island in late 1997 followed by a full-scale, satellite-based internet connection, accessed through a free-to-users internet café in the capital, Alofi, and by the few telephone lines that could handle data.

And up to that point, the government — a prime beneficiary of the island’s new ability to connect to the internet — happily allowed IUSN to co-exist with Telecom Niue.

But in late 2003, when IUSN decided to turn the entire island into a WiFi hot-spot and make access free, Telecom Niue — and the government — clamped down. Touted around the world as a wireless paradise, Niue stood briefly as an example of what private industry can accomplish in even the most unlikely places with the encouragement of even the poorest governments.

But the government, as expressed through Telecom Niue, was not on board.

Not only did ubiquitous wireless internet mean that users could bypass the per-minute telephone charges of making data connections to the Niue internet hub but it also raised the spectre of free internet phone calls via computer. Even without a formal voice over internet protocol structure, such free phone calls have long been available between computer users who are connected to the internet — and the revenue stream represented by high international tolls for calls out of Niue might have vanished as islanders figured out the technology.

The handwriting had actually been on the wall for more than a year by the time the government acted. In a 2002 document titled “National Policy on Telecommunications for Niue — First Draft” (there was no second draft or final document) Telcom Niue says:

“Introducing competition in any aspect of the business may not be timely, as any threat to the viability of Telecom Niue would threaten the basic infrastructure that we have been building over the past few years.”

In June 2003, when the IUSN erected its WiFi masts and made Niue into the world’s first nation with ubiquitous, free, wireless internet access, the government moved to secure the primacy of Telecom Niue.

In September of 2003, having failed in its demands for an unspecified fee from the IUSN that would “take into
consideration Government losses” due to competition, the government shut down IUSN’s internet connection. The fee demand was based on the government’s contention that ISUN needed to obtain a licence to operate its WiFi network. That claim was based on language in its Telecommunications Act of 1989 which states that operators must obtain a licence to operate any device that emits an electronic signal — a broad enough blanket to cover even kitchen appliances and television remote control devices, but one that the government had not thought to invoke until the
advent of the WiFi network.

When the government was told that, under international law, there was no licence requirement for any operator of a WiFi (802.11) data communications network, the Director of Telecommunications, Richard Hipa, told the press that Niue was free to impose any rules on telecommunications licensing it chose, saying no-one would be allowed to “dictate to Niue what we want because this is Niue – we have to play the rules as laid down in the Niuean way. This is our sovereignty.”

IUSN still has access to the internet, a connection for which it pays Telecom Niue more than 500 times what a similar connection would cost in New Zealand (IUSN paid Telecom Niue $10,000 per month for a 64K frame relay connection to the New Zealand internet backbone in 2003, a connection it says would cost $20 inside New Zealand), and it still has its wireless intranet. It even continues to offer free internet access to users from its internet café in Alofi.

While some of its WiFi masts were damaged during the cyclone, the group says it has restored service throughout the island and actually lost very little of its infrastructure because, according to Mr St Clair, they had stored much of their equipment “in a water-tight metal shipping container before the cyclone hit,” a move that proved a bit more far-sighted than the government’s preparations.

The internet café was also damaged, as were many structures when Heta hit, but the domain name servers that underwrite the free services on Niue are based offshore, in Europe and the US, and so were unaffected by the storm.

However, the island has only one working international telephone line, according to a release from Travel Video in Tuvalu, and even email communications “cannot be guaranteed.”

The government, meanwhile, is considering options for the future of Niue’s internet that include becoming a direct provider of internet services — and perhaps even sweeping the IUSN away.

Thorns in Paradise; National Business Review; January 22, 2004

Thorns in Paradise PDF Download

Polynesian Island of Niue the First Free Wireless Nation

Wireless HotSpot Launched in South Pacific Island of Niue

ALOFI, NIUE, THE SOUTH PACIFIC – June 23, 2003 – The Internet Users Society – Niue (IUS-N), today announced that it has launched the world’s first free nation-wide WiFi Internet access service on the Polynesian island-nation of Niue. This new free wireless service which can be accessed by all Niue residents, tourists, government offices and business travelers, is being provided at no cost to the public or local government.

“WiFi is the prefect fit for the Island of Niue, where harsh weather conditions of rain, lightning, salt water, and high humidity cause major problems with underground copper lines,” said Richard St Clair, Co-Founder and Technical Manager at The Internet Users Society – Niue and Chairman, Pacific Island Chapter ISOC. “And since WiFi is a license free technology by International Agreement, no license is needed either by the provider or the user.”

WiFi, 802.11 or IEEE 802.11 is a type of radio technology used for wireless local area networks, based on a standard developed by the IEEE for local and wire networks within the 802.11 section. WiFi 802.11 is composed of several standards operating in different frequencies.

A substantial portion of Niue’s tourism comes from visiting yacht traffic during the non-cyclone season. Yachts with onboard computer equipment with WiFi cards and external antennas will be able to park in the harbor and access full Internet services from their vessels as an open node, also free of charge. Other visitors, consultants and tourists to the island who carry laptops with either built in WiFi or as an add-on, will also have the ability to connect to the open node free of charge for the duration of their stay. Local Internet users with recent-vintage laptops will find the built in wireless features useful as more areas are covered with RF, and users who may be in the more congested telephone circuit locales such as Alofi central will also benefit from the new technology. One government office is already hooked up to the WiFi service and it is expected others will join in as soon as the appropriate hardware is installed.

IUS-N continues to be a leader in developing appropriate technologies to enable low-cost, dependable Internet services for all, for small nations like Niue. IUS-N technology is a model for other providers to use in developing nations that face the same hostile weather environments and where there are restrictions on the older technologies for wireless Internet services or where license costs are very high. Because these are low-power RF (Radio Frequency) transmitters, plus they consume small amounts of electricity, the technology is appropriate for smaller nations like Niue.

WiFi is the latest free service offer by the IUS-N to all the people in Niue. In 1997, the IUS-N first introduced free Email services to the nation and subsequently launched free full Internet access services in 1999. Earlier this spring free broadband Internet services were deployed at its Internet Café in Niue.

For more information and a topographical network map please see:

About The Internet Users Society – Niue

IUS-N, a US-incorporated, private charitable foundation locally managed in Niue, was established in 1997 to use revenue from registration of .NU domain names to develop and fund free Internet services for all the people of Niue. The Internet Users Society – Niue (IUS-N) was designated to administer the .NU top level domain (TLD), commonly known as the .NU Country Code TLD (ccTLD), by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), in early 1997. The IUS-N is a private, tax exempt charitable foundation, which was founded in 1997 by J. William Semich in the US and others in Niue with the aim of using .NU domain name registration fees to fund the high costs of satellite-based Internet connectivity in Niue.

About Niue

The island of Niue with a population of less than 2,000, is the world’s smallest independent self-governed nation, and is a former dependency of New Zealand. Affectionately known as ‘the rock,’ Niue is reputedly the largest upraised coral atoll in the world. A single land mass in the center of a triangle of Polynesian islands, made up of Tonga, Western Samoa and the Cook Islands, Niue is located 2400 km north-east of New Zealand, on the eastern side of the International dateline, and is 11 hours behind Greenwich meantime. The island’s isolation and coral makeup create a rugged coastline and reef which provide intimate swimming coves as opposed to the typical long stretches of sandy beaches so predominant elsewhere in Polynesia. As a result it is a whale-watchers’, snorklers’ and scuba divers’ paradise. The landmass of Niue is 259 sq. km, and 13 villages are found along Niue’s 67-km circle island road.