Why Cities Should Operate Their Own Top Level Domains

By Richard Schreier

Richard Schreier is a product manager at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), the not-for-profit entity that has the mandate to operate the .CA platform for all Canadians. He has worked in the domain industry for more than 12 years and previously served as the CEO of Pool.com, a domain drop catcher and auction house. He has used his industry expertise to consult with several organizations through the new gTLD application process, leading to the launch of several new generic and brand domains. Richard offers a free 1 hour online webinar that provides a better sense of what might be possible for a dotcity TLD.

When we think of destinations on the Internet, we think of web addresses that often end in “.com” or “.net” or even “.us”. These strings to the right of the dot are called “top level domains” (TLDs) and until recently the choices of available TLDs was limited. There were 22 generic TLDs (like .com, .net, .biz, .org) and about 250 country code TLDs (like .us, .ca, .de). But today, there are more than 1000 available strings to the right of the dot, 66 of them representing cities – with five in North America (.boston, .miami, .nyc, .vegas and .quebec). These city and regional TLDs are often referred to as “geo TLDs” or “dotcity TLDs”.

This map shows the number of city-specific top level domains registered in each region.

But what does having a dotcity TLD mean?

The biggest opportunities for cities using their own dotcity TLD lie in economic development, city branding, and ensuring security for constituents. Imagine if every business in your city used a web address based on your dotcity TLD instead of a .com. Every time they advertise their website in the media, they are also advertising your brand.

And what about all those businesses who settled for an alternative domain name because their preferred business name or web address was not available? Your dotcity TLD platform will start as a pristine landscape and businesses in your city will have the first opportunity to acquire their online address of choice. How many “Joes Pizza” parlours are there around the world? Given they serve a very local audience, doesn’t it make sense for them to host their website at a precise location like “joespizza.yourcity”? Few pizza shops deliver globally!

Consumers will find the new address space easier to remember by having short and more relevant website addresses. And if you restrict usage of your dotcity TLD to just businesses and individuals within your geographic boundaries (which, as the operator of your dotcity TLD, you have the ability to do), then consumers can rely on the notion that websites located at your dotcity TLD addresses indeed reflect local businesses.

But the benefits of operating your own dotcity TLD don’t stop there.

What about access to municipal services? Or IoT devices?

You could direct constituents to “taxes.yourcity” or “transit.yourcity” or “parks.yourcity” instead of burying links to these critical online resources somewhere on your website home landing page. Wouldn’t consumers more easily find what they are looking for? Imagine someone looking at an advertisement on a city bus advising of new recycling rules in the city. Without a dotcity TLD platform you would likely direct citizens to your main landing page and hope they find the right link to the new program. Or, you could simply tell them to visit “recycle.yourcity” instead.

As the city deploys IoT devices that are internet based, these devices will all have some kind of internet address, referred to as an IP (internet protocol) address. An IP address is an awkward collection of numbers that machines understand, but most humans find difficult. It is why we use domain names. The domain name system, or DNS, basically connects a memorable string with an IP address.

If your city had full control of a namespace like your dotcity TLD then you could use any string you wanted to identify an IoT device rather than use their IP address. Think of things like “mainwaterlevel.yourcity” or “powerstationA.yourcity” for managing city services. Or for initiating communications with tourists at key attractions like, “sceniclookout.yourcity”. The options are endless when you control the space.

There are also opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Many dotcity TLD web addresses lend themselves well to serve as local portals. Think “restaurants.yourcity” or “shopping.yourcity”. Some clever entrepreneur will see an opportunity to create online portals that give consumers direct and easy access to your city’s offerings. It’s a win-win for businesses and consumers alike. The city itself might make specific portals available as well like “tourism.yourcity”, “news.yourcity”, or “thingstodo.yourcity”.

Domains are a sustainable business, with real revenue.

The City of New York has an agreement in place through a partnership to operate the .nyc TLD platform whereby the city receives a guaranteed revenue share. In the first year the city was guaranteed a minimum of $300,000 in shared revenue and that revenue share grows to just over $1M in the fifth year. Based on current up-take, the city’s revenue share (at 40%) will likely exceed those minimum guarantees.

Not every city is the size of New York but through careful launch planning and offering “premium” names at premium prices, the operation of a dotcity TLD can produce modest revenues and cover its costs.

So when considering the possibility of applying for your dotcity TLD in the next round, be sure to get all the facts of how the registry can be operated. While you might first think the initial expense is costly, you might discover that even over the short term the return on that investment is likely. And, a dotcity TLD represents an annuity that will continue to produce revenue for years to come.

Why didn’t more North American cities acquire their dot city TLD?

We cannot know for sure, but the North American market is very .com centric. This is unlike other regions in the world where country code TLDs are the preferred way to find websites because they already have a relationship to their local geography. However, the launch of geo-TLDs around the world has proven successful and you can see this from a number of websites that track and monitor their performance. As they succeed, more and more communities will consider venturing down this path. And as more communities launch, more and more citizens will naturally start looking for online addresses that correspond to their dotcity TLD.

Getting prepared to submit an application takes time.

Like any serious undertaking, preparing to submit an application to operate your dotcity TLD takes time. Experience of other municipalities around the world indicates that starting 3-5 years in advance of an application is not uncommon. To do it right, you benefit from broad community involvement including business improvement areas, local Chambers of Commerce, your Department of Tourism, and your City Administration to name just a few key stakeholders.

Most importantly, you need to collect the information you need to make a decision on whether a dotcity TLD is the right choice for your community. There is a lot to learn about getting the rights to operate your own dotcity TLD.

There are minimum costs that need to be covered by domain revenue, policy issues to decide (perhaps you would not allow any form of cyber bullying on your platform), the premium priced name strategies, launch obligations, trademark holder rights, technical back-end supplier decisions, and more.

Fortunately there are a number of major players in the domain space based in North America that are eager to help educate you and plan for the future. And most cities around the world that have already ventured down this path are also willing and in some cases even eager to share their experiences and successes. Don’t hesitate to reach out to any one of them.

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