It's finally happening. Deemed as a nightmare for most and opportunity for many, after more than seven years of planning, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has initiated a process that could trigger a dramatic expansion of the Internet.

Today is the day that ICANN begins accepting applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). The cozy world of .com's, .gov's, .org's and about 19 other generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) will soon be expanded to include all types of words in many different languages. For the first time generic TLDs can include words in non-Latin languages, such as Cyrillic, Chinese or Arabic. While you can read the Applicant Guidebook here along with the announcement, the temperature of the excitement in Pakistan for this new wave, has been lukewarm at best.

With companies finally putting the .pk vs the .com debacle behind them and settling into at least a basic digital presence, do organizations and brands in Pakistan really understand what the consequences could be if they don't step up to the task of at least investigating the new gTLDs? Last evening when Fouad Bajwa, Co-founder and Director at Oi2 - Organization for Internet and Innovation and Co-Vice Chair APRALO and ALAC at ICANN, posted a note to the PakGrid forum, we thought we'd write in to him to get the Pakistani perspective.

So Fouad. What does all this mean for businesses here in Pakistan? "This program is going to challenge the brightest of the brightest out there in the Internet world and community. Todate, nobody really knows the ultimate value and applications of new gTLDs and as has always been evident, no one can predict the future of technology! For Pakistani's, its going to be the "Can you predict the future of the Internet?"

What are gTLDs in the first place?The term 'Top Level Domain' known by the acronym TLD is the part of any website address that comes after the dot in the domain name, for instance, in the website address www.icann.org, the TLD is "org" after the dot, the same as .com and .net and so forth. Until now, the Internet community and World Wide Web users know about two specific types of TLDs called Generic TLD or gTLDs and Country TLDs or ccTLDs. Anything dot com, dot org, dot net etc are gTLDs and anything .us, .au, .pk are all ccTLDs.

"You see," continues Fouad, "What has happened so far in the gTLD space is this: for nearly a decade, there have been discussions among the ICANN, the body responsible for the technical coordination of the Internet Name and Addressing Space and the Internet community about the possibilities of expanding the Generic Told Level Domain field. While some believe this will enable a new era of innovation, there are also some who believe this will only serve a handful few like the big trademark owners and corporations or domainers (domain traders and brokers) in the developed world." And hence the debate.

There is no doubt that ICANN's mandate is to promote the opportunities for innovation and competition within the Internet Name and Addressing Space. "Until 2011, the gTLDs in the domain name space had been very limited as opposed to the enormous innovation opportunities that could be offered through addressing on the World Wide Web. Couple this with the expansion that Internet can achieve from being ubiquitously connected online and the Internet of things. The new gTLDs may just that solution to break the limit and move beyond where we stand today online with the 21 gTLDs."

So it's brushing the old and bringing in the new? According to Fouad, it's adaptation. "These 21 gTLDs are facing limited scope moving towards scarcity, getting expensive, therefore, there was an evident need for expanding opportunities." ICANN, with the support of the like-minded Internet Community finally came to terms with the possibility of launching the new gTLDs program, starting the process with the application round in January 2012 and allow sponsoring organizations to apply for and operate new generic Top Level Domain 'Registries'.

This has both implications and opportunities and sponsoring organizations will be able to evolve and distribute fully functional Internet Domain Names under top level domains such as '.sport', '.social', '.cio', '.car' '.news', '.shop', '.pakistan', '.mango','.song', '.music' and literally anything you can come up with.

"Before the end of this year," explains Fouad, "users of the Internet and World Wide Web will witness domain names and website addresses for websites that might look like 'www.pakistan.google', 'www.pakistan.ibm' , 'www.pakistan.music' , 'www.pakistan.cnn'."

One can see just what the potential and danger could be. "While this naming convention appears to be segmenting the Internet, it is actually changing the Internet's name and address space expansion and breaking monopolies while creating the possibilities for evolving new ones because the more the names, the harder in attracting audiences to them just like in advertising, too much visual clutter and noise might just turn away people!"

What's in it for Pakistan?An enthused Fouad continues, "Keeping the world aside for the sake of this discussion, for Pakistan, it means a whole new opportunity to build or simply be washed away. Washed away incurring some serious loss. The Internet and World Wide Web audience will be exposed to a large number of new specific web addresses according to their preferences and interests. The new gTLDs offer specific uses for example, all music will be available at dot music '.music' websites, similarly, all software companies in the world might be listed on a search engine specific to the dot software domain at 'www.mytumtum.software'."

Your language, your script: No more roman script specific domain names. The world can apply for new gTLDs in any UN-recognized script such as Arabic, Chinese. As ICANN's President Rod Beckstrom puts it, 'this is the first time in history that it is possible to apply for new generic top-level domains in internationalized domain scripts.' You could apply for terms in Urdu, not only a company name or brand or a city name, but any other word or generic term. According to Beckstrom, 'When you open standards in technology and create rules of law, it fosters and allows innovation that none of us can imagine'. And he means everything dot urdu!

Everything dot something: Let's say I want to buy a new car in Lahore. I might visit www.lahore.cars to look for a possible deal in my city Lahore, or buy my air tickets to Karachi from www.islamabad.piac. The new generic name space and addresses will explode into both diversity and expanded choices for what domain name suits my needs or my business's online identity.

Rocky Road Trip to new gTLDs: The road to acquiring new gTLDs is a rocky one. Though anyone can attempt to submit an application for a new gTLD, the critical application process, both in terms of technical and financial commitments, will be a very complicated and expensive one. Companies and individuals around the world have put in years of preparation to help those interested file applications - as of this month, this has become big business.

Heavy duty Application Fees: The cost for a new gTLD application fee to ICANN is a non-refundable $185,000. Over the years, we tried our best to convince the ICANN board and Internet Community to bring down these costs but we could only get the initial evaluation fees kicked out in 2010. As with any new addition to the new gTLD name space, there will be other costs involving consulting, legal issues involving trademarks, copyrights, intellectual property rights, administrative, operational, marketing, fighting competition among others. This means that a new opportunity for innovation experts has presented itself self-proclaimed Experts of New Top Level Domains or simply new gTLD Experts and Advisers is tremendous.

Lesser fees for Pakistan and the rest of the Developing World?Developing countries such as Pakistan will not have to pay the $185,000 fee. Instead, ICANN has laid out a plan to help developing countries' Internet community to participate in this expensive program at a reduced application price. The ICANN's Board has set aside USD$2,000,000 to assist needy applicants, a seed fund to which other organizations can donate.

As detailed on ICANN's website, the organization is making an effort to include everyone in the new gTLD program. ICANN has already extended awareness-raising events in countries the World Bank defines as "developing economies." ICANN representatives have been carrying out awareness raising activities countries like Fiji, India, Kenya, Mauritania, Senegal, and many others. ICANN has already started using the Google ad network to display information on ICANN's New gTLD program for Internet users in specific countries. Targeted countries include all 35 that the World Bank categorizes as "low income," ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe so it should be seen in Pakistan as well. So concluding, starting from the first round, qualified organizations have the opportunity to apply for financial aid and their own top-level domain.

What is happening after the new gTLD application round opened on the 12th of January 2012?As far as I have heard first hand from my friends and acquaintances, they have been going through the final version of the new GTLD applicant guidebook and filling out the TAS application online on the ICANN website. So far the general feeling is that the application filing is a stressful and confusing activity!

The online form does not allow people the save their entries for later review and asks for immediate submission and cannot be changed once submitted. Applicants that have once pressed submitted will have to wait until ICANN reviews the the user and the applicant.

Ending the discussion:Based on my experience, the new gTLD program provides the opportunity to navigate the Internet and World Wide Web in a brand new way, use it in more exciting ways and opportunities for launching new marketing and services offerings. The non-profit and non-government sectors will also benefit imensely from this. The new gTLDs can be expected to create new ecosystems for online innovation, job creation and economic growth and it remains very hard to predict the amazing future ahead.

Pakistani businessmen and Internet entrepreneurs already online may want to build or enhance their brands by securing brand specific gTLDs to increase customer and partner trust and quality information. They will have new marketing opportunities especially for small businesses and organizations through gTLD or domain names that specifically serve their brand purpose. Remember with the new gTLDs, Internationalized Domain Names in localized languages such as Urdu, Punjabi, Pashtu, Sindhi etc are also posied to be launched soon that localized and targetted market TLDs are no more a distant future. If the market is made aware now, tons of Pakistani Entrepreneurs, Businessmen and Enthusiasts can take to the web to either invest in new gTLD applications or benefit by partnering with potential applicants.

According to ICANN's website here, potential benefits, the new gTLD program will promote:

-- Entrepreneurship. Create your own business model and establish accessibility policies for your TLD. If your customers want tighter security, make your TLD a high-security zone.

-- Increased control. You set the rules and the price for those registering your TLD.

-- Ongoing revenue stream. Your customers could renew their domain names year after year.

-- Innovative marketing opportunity. Build better brand definition, brand awareness, brand loyalty and trust by having full control over your own TLD.

-- Innovative business models. When new gTLDs combine with other emerging Internet technologies, such as IPv6, RFID chips, and cloud computing, new products and services are possible.

-- Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs).Increase market reach by making the Internet completely accessible to users whose local languages use non-Latin characters.

-- Engage your community. Create a rallying point for supporters of your cause, community or culture to unite with a community-based TLD. Bring together your geographic area. Celebrate your local citizens, commerce, activities, and culture with a geographic TLD.

-- Risks and Responsibilities: Investment.In addition to the US $185,000 evaluation fee and ongoing registry operating costs, applicants must demonstrate sufficient financial depth to keep the registry fully operational for at least three years even if the business plan does not achieve its objectives.

-- Loss of Investment. There is no guarantee you will get the string you applied for. If you do not pass the extensive evaluation process you could lose some or all of your initial investment. As with any new business, getting the operation started does not guarantee that revenues will profitably sustain it.

-- Contractual restrictions. Running a TLD means you must comply with all the obligations of your registry agreement with ICANN. Even more restrictions exist when running a community-based TLD.

-- Staffing. Running a registry requires employing highly skilled technical operators and/or negotiating a mutually beneficial agreement with a trustworthy technical partner.

-- Competition. Your applied-for TLD could compete with a same or similar string(s), and indirectly with all TLDs, both generic and country code. If approved, your new TLD could encounter competition from unexpected sectors.

Uncharted territory.You will be pioneering on the cutting edge of technological innovation in a relatively new sector. You may have to find your way without other applicable business models for guidance.

Remember, as clearly stated on its website, ICANN does not control content on the Internet, but through its coordination role of the Internet's naming system, it does have an important impact on the expansion and evolution of the Internet. There is a great deal of chaos and innovation that is going to drive the expansion online; impact the future of the Web as we know it. And yes, Pakistan does have a role to play, sooner rather than later.