The Internet is set to become a much more inclusive place when new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) open up next year. Instead of the 22 familiar URLs that we have now – .com, .net, .co.za etc – we could start seeing companies, brands, cities and even countries launching their own top-level domains. Examples like .nyc, .ibm, even .joburg could soon become a reality.

Of course launching a top-level domain isn’t quite as simple as running your own second-level domain, says Brad White, director: global media affairs at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Companies or organisations wishing to secure their own gTLD will need to apply for the right to do so, from ICANN.

They will also have to demonstrate that they are willing and able to maintain the register, says White – and this is no trivial task, so applicants need to be sure they are able to meet requirements, and that they will do so in the long term.

Applications open on 12 January 2012 and continue until 12 April, whereupon the ICANN board will consider and approve applications.

The application fee of $185 000.00 is just the start of the process, White explains, as the expense of running a register is a major one.

“We’re expecting applications to come from organisations like NGOs and cities. Before they even make an application, we want organisations to have properly considered whether they need a gTLD or not, and exactly what the benefit mght be.”

It’s difficult to predict how many applications there will be for gTLDs, and whether they are likely to be taken up by companies, brands or civil authorities. However, White believes that  cities will be among the first to test the water and possibly look to a gTLD a a revenue stream.

One of the benefits of the new gTLDs is that they are not restricted to the three-letter extensions we are familiar with. And they can be in any character set, so many of the current restrictions will fall away.

White believes this will help to increase Internet access, and foster greater inclusion across nations.

“The bottom line is that 2012 and the opening up of gTLDs will mark a huge change in the Internet – one of the biggest it has seen since its creation.”

ICANN has lauched a micro Web site offering a wealth of information about the new programme, including a 300-page applicant guidebook.