Web sites with a .africa extension could soon become reality if an application for the generic top level domain (gTLD) submitted to ICANN is successful.

Earlier this year, the authority opened applications for new gTLDs, which will considerably expand the scope of site names and will probably include brand names as well as broad domains like the .africa one.

Applications for about 2 000 new gTLDs have been received, with a deadline of the end of this month.

ICANN will vet all applications to ensure the organisations in question are sufficiently resourced and financially able to discharge the obligations that go with managing a gTLD. Successful applicants will be informed towards the last quarter of this year. If the .africa application is successful, it should be up and running by early 2013.

The application for .africa has been made by South Africa’s .ZA Central Registry (also known as Uniforum) on behalf of the entire continent.

Application criteria are very strict, says Uniforum director Neil Dundas. Apart from an application fee of $185 000.00, applicants for a continent must have the endorsement at least two-thirds of the countries in the continent.

The .ZA central Registry, together with the South African domain name authority, ZADNA, have made their application with the blessing of the African Union as well as independent endorsements from about 40 African countries.

In addition, the organisation has earmarked about $1,3-million to ensure it is able to successfully manage the gTLD.

The new gTLDs will join domain names like .com, .org and others. Currently, countries have their own top level domains, such as .co.za, .com.au or .co.uk.

However, the new gTLDs will include brand names – such as .coke, .apple and others – as well as continental domains like .africa, city names and also general terms like .hiv, .toys and .jobs.

Applicants have to prove their fitness to manage the domain they are applying for. In this respect, the .ZA Central Registry has recently implemented new systems and software that are compatible with ICANN’s international standards and, to a large degree, automate the application, payment and management process.

In addition, the organisation is in the process or recruiting new domain registrars – third party organisations that will facilitate the registration and management process on behalf of end user customers.

In order to emerge as the preferred bidder for the .africa gTLD, the .ZA Cental Registry had to first prove to the AU that it was the best choice for the job.

Dundas points out that there are a number of conditions attached to the AU support. These include ensuring the domain is run for Africa, from Africa; and that a .Africa Foundation be established to channel any funds not needed to run the operation to developing skills and markets in Africa. The organisation is also committed to helping source content and communities that are relevant to the continent.

The initial target for new .africa registrations is 100 000 within the first three years, but the sky is the limit in terms of how many registrations the organisation can handle, says Dundas.

The cost of registering a .africa site will be $18, which will also be the annual renewal fee.