What’s nu?

My recent entry on latte art raised a couple of intriguing questions in my mind, the first of which was, “What is the domain .nu and why is a Swedish coffee site using it?” The answer turns out to be much more interesting than I’d imagined possible and reveals the fascinating story of how a couple of entrepreneurs brought free Internet access to a tiny Pacific island nation.

.nu is the top-level domain name for the country of Niue (pronounced “new-way,” approximately translated from the Nuiean for “Look, there’s a coconut.”). If you haven’t heard of Nuie, you’re not alone. The island is only 1.5 times as large as the District of Columbia, is 400 miles away from its nearest neighbors, and is inhabitated by just over 2,000 people. Though an independent nation, its gets protection and significant monetary aid from New Zealand.

In 1994, retired Silicon Valley entrepreneu Richard St. Clair arrived in Niue on a Peace Corps assignment. He found the island’s telecommunications to be terribly lacking. His crank-operated telephone had a number of “two longs and short.” The government owned about 100 computers, but the phone lines were too noisy to carry modem signals to connect them. With long-distance phone calls priced prohibitively, the island was isolated.

In 1995 the local phone company upgraded the lines so that they could carry data. With St. Clair’s expertise locals created the Savage Island Network, a dial-up service used for email, file hosting, and bulletin boards. It expanded over time from its initial 20-30 users to become a nation wide Intranet, but there it met its limit. Connecting to the rest of the world was too costly for the island’s government to support. From St. Clair’s white paper [.pdf] on the story:

In 1997 the government of Niue declared that it had no funds to develop Internet Services and decided to delegate its development to the private sector. This decision did not come as a surprise. The government’s priorities at the time were tourism and developing private sector businesses to reduce the large number of public servants — priorities that remain to this day. It was understandable that they did not want to invest in something that had an uncertain future, regardless of how exciting it appeared to be. This hesitation was mirrored throughout the world; few on the planet wanted to take the risk.

If Niue was going to connect to the World Wide Web, it was going to have to do so with private funds. That wasn’t going to be easy to do with the island’s tiny population. The solution came from another American entrepreneur, Bill Semich. Semich founded the Internet Users Society – Niue to market the country’s top-level domain, “.nu”. The profits would be used to develop Niue’s communications infrastructure. For the idea to work, the domain name would have to prove popular and the Niueans would have to overcome some technical difficulties. The latter included both mundane matters like getting parts delivered and exotic problems such as preventing geckos from sneaking into the power supplies and causing explosions.

In 1997 Niue opened email services up to the public and saw that there was great potential for Internet usage. The Internet Users Society proceeded with a global marketing campaign for the .nu domain to fund the network’s expansion. By 1999 they’d generated enough revenue to open up a full-time digital satelite connection to New Zealand at a cost of over US$5,000 per month. They also built a separate building for the servers (to keep the geckos out) and created an Internet cafe in the island’s population center. As a result, all of the island’s residents have free Internet access. As of March of 2003 Niueans were spending 6,000 hours a week online and exchanging 20-30,0000 emails. This has improved their lives considerably:

Now after several years with full Internet services, Niueans see the Internet as a standard communications utility. Internet use is as common as the telephone, hot and cold running water, and electricity. In fact, there are probably a few Niueans who have e-mail addresses, but do not have hot and cold running water.

The free Internet services have reunited many people who have been isolated from their families who are living overseas. Some ex-patriot Niueans have met members of their “on-Niue” families for the first time online, while others have made trips to Niue to finally meet family and see Niue for the first time. This is one example of the Internet truly achieving what many hoped it would — the elimination of the tyranny of distance.

And finally, to complete the answer to my initial question, what the heck does Sweden have to do with this?

Sweden is the largest market for .nu domain names. We targeted domain name registrants from Sweden because “nu” means “now” in Swedish; we believe it had a certain appeal to the market for that reason. While “nu” also means “naked” in French, to this day, there are very few .nu domains registered by French nationals.

So there you have it, a brief trip around the world via Swedish latte art, a couple of American computer nerds, and a quirky Pacific Island, all made possible by that wonderful invention known as the Internet. Along the way, an object lesson in how entrepreneurs can find creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, in this case bringing that same invention to an isolated coral rock inhabited by just a couple thousand people.

For more information, check out St. Clair’s complete white paper [.pdf] on the subject, his other paper [.pdf] on the effort to bring wi-fi to the island, and his account [.pdf] of the destruction wreaked by a tremendous cyclone in early 2004. Or support Niue by registering your very own .nu website.


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