MARINA DEL REY, Calif. (AP) â€” With some 20 million ''.com'' Internet addresses now registered, any moderately easy-to-remember domain name is apt to be claimed by now.
So why not try a not-com from a Pacific island? There's .tv from Tuvalu, .to from Tonga or .cc from the Cocos Islands. Or how about an offering from a former Soviet republic, say Moldova (.md) or Turkmenistan (.tm)?
As the Internet's oversight body meets in Marina del Rey this week to consider adding new suffixes to the current limited selection, some small nations have already cashed in on their digital assets.
They've contracted with private companies to market their surplus addresses in deals that have netted them millions of dollars â€” enough to fund schools, medical care, even free or subsidized Internet access via satellite to islands that cables can't reach.
For some countries, domain names have proven more lucrative than coconuts or vanilla.
``This is the 21st century, and they are now exporting bits and bytes,'' said David W. Manly, chief executive of .Nu Domain Ltd., which registers .nu on behalf of the Pacific isle of Niue.
In all, 244 suffixes have been assigned regionally to countries and territories around the world, based on lists maintained by the International Organization for Standards.
Manly and other country-code promoters believe that the likely addition of new suffixes, while creating more competition for them, will highlight the existence of alternatives.
``People are just becoming aware of the alternatives,'' said James Ross, vice president for business affairs at dotTV, which is paying Tuvalu $50 million over 10 years for the marketing rights to .tv.
At its annual meeting, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is likely to select a handful of new suffixes later this week. They will be global suffixes like .com, .net and .org â€” and most will be available to anyone willing to pay a registration fee.
By contrast, the two-letter country suffixes are meant for residents and businesses in a particular country. But no one has stopped governments from allowing them to become unofficial global suffixes.
``God bless them if that's what a country wants to do,'' said Esther Dyson, ICANN's chairwoman.
Alan Ezeir, president of Website.WS, said typical Internet users won't know the difference. The company is marketing .ws, though it really stands for Western Samoa, a country now known as Samoa.
Nevertheless, some clashes are possible.
Ezeir's company is discouraging ICANN from picking .web as a new code, saying it would confuse users with .ws. And a company that wants to market .bz from Belize filed a federal lawsuit last week challenging ICANN's authority to consider .biz.
Jonathan Weinberg, who headed an ICANN task force on new domain names, notes that country-code administrators were among critics of expansion â€” notwithstanding their current optimism that dot-com alternatives will help them.
``They were pretty concerned the value of their real estate would go way down,'' he said.
Whatever names are chosen, the country codes are likely to maintain at least a niche following.
The .tv suffix is being targeted at TV stations and video-heavy Web sites â€” Major League Baseball and Columbia TriStar are among clients, while .to is marketed as a jumping off point to another site with a name more difficult to remember.
The countries that licensed their addresses, meanwhile, will continue to cash in their windfall.
For Tuvalu, with 10,500 people and a land mass of 26 square miles, the deal gave it money to join the United Nations.
Tuvalu can now offer free high school education beginning next year and finance trips to New Zealand for families needing emergency medical care. Plus, the country was able to spend $7 million to improve roads for its 35 or so cars.
``We are very poor in terms of natural resources,'' said Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana. ``DotTV considerably increased our capabilities.''
Meanwhile, the eNIC Corp. has used proceeds from .cc to finance a $23,000-a-month satellite connection, and residents of the Cocos Island get access for a $5 annual fee.
As Internet access increases worldwide, residents might one day find their most desirable domain names already claimed by foreigners.
In fact, Moldova is now limiting foreign registrations of .md to health-related names and sites.
But Emeline Tuita, Tonga's consulate general in San Francisco, isn't worried. She said she would rather see Tonga join the information revolution now â€” subsidized by .to sales.
``We can't hold back development because of a potential 10 years down the road,'' she said. ``Tonga is actually getting to participate in something the whole world is benefiting from.''
On the Net:
List of country codes: http://www.iana.org