A poor nation finds Net profit in its own name

The Star-Ledger, March 16th, 1999

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 1999

Date: 1999/03/16 Tuesday Page: 001 Section: NEWS Edition: FINAL Size: 1232 words

'.md' is a tonic for Moldova

By Sam Ali Star-Ledger Staff

Save for their award-winning red wines, folks from the small Eastern European republic of Moldova don't have a whole lot to brag about these days.

Since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, their national debt has reached a whopping $1.3 billion. Inflation is racing close to 12 percent. The average annual income is a meager $2,400, if that. And last year, Moldovans saw their currency, the leu, depreciate a full 100 percent, essentially making it worthless, following the Russian ruble crisis.

But now, Moldovans have gotten some really good news: A quirk in Internet licensing provisions could bring in some much-needed cash.

Granted, only 13 percent of Moldovans even have a telephone, and even fewer own a personal computer. But thanks in large part to the marketing vision of a cyber-savvy Florida entrepreneur and people like Leonard Vernon, a doctor from Cherry Hill, the Internet could become big business for Moldova.

Last month John Harris, president of Domain Name Trust Inc. in Fort Myers, Fla. got his hands on what could become Moldova's most precious commodity: its two-letter Internet extension, ".md."

Yes, .md, as in doctor.

Besides the so-called generic Internet extensions used on the World Wide Web today - all those .coms, .nets, .orgs and .edus - each country is assigned its own two-letter country code extension to use for Internet addresses indigenous to that country.

The extensions were doled out a while ago by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, a U.S. government-funded body that oversees the allocation of Internet addresses.

So, for example, the United States got .us, France got .fr, Japan got .jp and so on.

Lucky Moldovans got the code .md, and agreed - after much coaxing and prodding - to let Harris market that valuable suffix in the United States, Canada and other English-speaking countries in Europe and Asia, for a fee.

In November, after nearly 18 months of negotiations with Moldova's Ministry of Communications, Harris signed a 25-year contract with Moldova to sell Internet addresses ending in .md.

While .md means diddly in Moldova's native Romanian or Russian languages, Harris hopes thousands of Western doctors and health care professionals will see its potential and shell out big bucks for the right to affix the ".md" suffix to their Internet addresses or Web sites. For example, plasticsurgery.md or eyedoctor.md. "The possibilities are limitless," said Harris, 50, a retired software developer who moved from Canada to bask in the Florida sunshine two years ago.

''I've never seen anything as exciting as this - .md is the perfect Internet address."

Anyone, with enough money, can sign up for an .md address by going to www.register.md., said Harris. His company charges $299 a year for the exclusive address and about 6.7 percent of that, or $20, is paid to Moldova.

Harris said he hopes to add more than 1 million names to his .md registry within three years. Multiply that by $20 - Moldova's cut for every .md name Harris signs up - and that translates into a $20 million check for the poor Eastern European state. Not bad for a country that didn't even know what to do with its .md Internet extension a mere two years ago.

Already, the .md registry has created quite a stir in New Jersey.

One enterprising chiropractor, Vernon of Cherry Hill, has formed a company, GoHealth.md and snapped up 140 .md names in English and Spanish - everything from body parts, diseases, vitamin names and alternative medicine.

His vision: to create a virtual medical village or portal on the Internet that includes a directory of physicians and their Web sites, a facility to search for other health-related sites, medical news, e-mail, links to the National Library of Medicine, alternative medicine newsletters, the National Cancer Institute, and so on.

Vernon tracked down Harris after seeing a little advertising blurb in Wired magazine.

''I'm his No. 1 customer," said Vernon, 44. "I've purchased the most .md names from him so far. I believe the marketability of this is just incredible and we're helping poor people in Moldova. It's perfect."

Like any portal model, Vernon said he will give everything away for free - Web design and hosting, the right for doctors to use his stash of .md Internet names - but will charge other companies to advertise eye-catching banners on the portal. It's the same concept that has driven radio and television for years, he said.

Portal sites typically attract advertisers and their dollars because they are able to command large audiences, noted Vernon. And what better audience to command than a large, captive cyber-room of wealthy physicians and educated health care professionals, said Vernon.

Vernon, who can be reached at lenny@doctor.md, hopes to raise $2.5 million in a private offering today to launch his GoHealth.md company.

For folks like Vernon and Harris, .md is a lot like an undeveloped plot of land.

Right now, there are still plenty of vacant parcels to go around, and savvy doctors and health care professionals that want to set up shop there had best start buying now, he said.

A perfect example of the finite nature of Internet addresses is .com.

For many businesses today, owning a Web site is crucial to their survival, said Harris. But securing a good Internet address - a catchy and memorable one that describes one's business is becoming increasingly difficult using traditional Internet extensions like .com.

In just six years, the World Wide Web has grown from about 7,000 Internet address to about 3.5 million worldwide. Network Solutions won an exclusive federal contract to register all Internet addresses ending with .com, .net, .org and .edu back in 1992.

Anyone can buy an Internet address ending in those extensions for only $70 at www.register.com, but the supply of marketable Web addresses is fast running dry.

Up until recently, country codes like .md, were virtually ignored, until traditional Internet extensions started getting harder to come by. That's when entrepreneurs started seeing country codes as a potentially attractive alternative.

Last year, the 9,000 inhabitants of the tiny Polynesian microstate of Tuvalu, the smallest nation on Earth (population, 10,000; land area, 10 square miles), signed an Internet deal with a Canadian company, TV Corp. to market its valuable Internet extension - ".tv."

Tuvalu, whose communications infrastructure consists of one AM radio station, 130 telephones and, incidentally, no televisions, stands to make a mint: more than $60 million up front, under the deal, plus a cut of the profits.

In 1997, the island kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific began offering its ".to" suffix. And the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan also made a business of selling ".tm."

Still, Harris says few, if any, will make as much money as .md, as far as he's concerned.

For Harris, .md is the natural and intuitive address for physicians and those in the broad medical community.

''Whether you have a first-grade education or a college degree, 'md' is synonymous with medicine in this country," said Harris.


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