Internet addresses: Colombia's hottest export?

LONDON Thu Jun 2, 2011 6:48am EDT

LONDON (Reuters) - Global brands from Twitter to Amazon (AMZN.O) are buying up Colombian Internet addresses, as the country's .co domain attracts organisations unable to get their choice of .com address or who want a shorter name.

Colombia, which had only 28,000 registered Internet addresses before it opened up the .co domain a year ago, has just signed up its millionth customer.

"It's globally recognisable, it's short, and it's got an incredible technology behind it," says Juan Diego Calle, chief executive of .CO Internet, the registry operator for the .co top level domain.

He says the company mainly attracts small businesses which cannot get a .com address that suits them -- some 90 million .com addresses have been registered. But top brands are signing up too.

Twitter, for example, has bought t.co, Amazon has a.co, and U.S. online retailer Overstock (OSTK.O) is rebranding itself internationally as o.co.

Calle, a Colombian and a serial Internet entrepreneur, raised $5 million to start .CO Internet and beat rivals including VeriSign (VRSN.O), which serves as the global registry for .com and .net, to win the government contract to operate the .co domain.

The Miami-based company took over the administration of .co in July 2010, and organisations or individuals can now simply buy a .co address for as little as $11.99 from Internet domain registrars such as Go Daddy.

Attractive single-character names such as t.co are not sold through registrars but through private negotiations.

The highest price the company has disclosed for a name is $350,000 for the sale of o.co to Overstock, but Calle says growing awareness of the .co domain as well as increasing demand for short names for mobile applications is driving prices up.

"After Amazon and after a few of the other deals that we've done over the past few months, the price of one character is already north of $1.5 million," he told Reuters by telephone.

Other countries have also capitalised on their top-level Internet domains.

The Polynesian island of Tuvalu's .tv domain is used by many television organisations, while Montenegro's .me is increasingly popular for apps for smartphones like the Apple (AAPL.O) iPhone.

Country codes are administered by ICANN, the non-profit group that coordinates the Internet's naming system. The codes were first established by the International Organisation for Standardisation in 1974, before the World Wide Web was invented.

Top-level domains are currently restricted but an impending liberalisation will allow individuals or organisations to apply to register any TLDs they choose, for example .paris or .green.

Calle says he does not believe this will lower demand for .co addresses. "We are very excited about the new TLDs coming out," he says.

"People have become used to seeing .com, .co.uk, but when they see a new thing like .co they're not always comfortable with it. As new extensions are rolled out, and they're marketed, we're going to see more awareness at the consumer level."

(Editing by Andrew Callus)

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