Europe is about to become an Internet fixture with the launch of its own extension -- the .eu domain -- and businesses are girding for the battle to bear the precious two letters.
While the date for the attribution of the new extension has not yet been set, businesses have been gearing up for the prestigious new Web address.
Five hundred million potential European candidates for the new domain will converge in a "gold rush," Indom said, a French firm specialized in the registration of name domains.
"The opening of a new extension on the Internet is a major event" for businesses, said Thomas Sertillanges, Indom's communications director.
The pivotal move "closes the door to other companies by depriving them of the chance to get strategic names," he explained, while it also "opens the door for those wanting to expand their presence on the Internet."
At the end of last year, there were an estimated 65 million domain names, with 32 million of them ending in the .com extension.
Unlike .com -- originally created to designate commercial activities but then attributed freely following the success of the Internet -- .eu aims to keep its specificity: a EU identity.
"The companies who want to give a European dimension to their businesses can't allow themselves to be absent from this new zone," said Stephane Van Gelder, co-founder of Indom and administrator of AFNIC, the body that manages domain names in France.
In October last year, the commission gave the green light to EURid, the Belgium-based registrar of European domain names, to set up the rules of attribution for .eu.
Those rules were expected to be published in the coming weeks, although their main points were already widely known.
The .eu extension will be available for any business with its headquarters, its administration or its main office in the EU, as well as any organization established in the EU or any person residing in any of the bloc's 25 member states.
Switzerland, which is not an EU member, will not be eligible for the shared identity, at least not initially.
During a so-called "sunrise" period, certain companies will benefit from a priority registration for the extension, on the basis of the registration of a trademark. Other customers enjoying early-bird treatment will be public organizations and the registrations of origin certifications, such as for champagne or Parma ham.
During this period, due to begin early in the second half of this year, the rule "first come, first served" will prevail.
Applications presented must be complete and accepted by "validating agents," picked by the EURid to make the grade. If not, the candidate has to get back in line.
On the yet-unknown launch date, the .eu extension will be available for everyone. That is when a flood of applications was expected from individuals, small companies and other candidates, still to be dealt with on a "first come, first served" basis.
With only one candidate able to snare a particular name, competition is expected to be heated, especially for English-language names such as television.eu, media.eu, press.eu, business.eu and sex.eu.
As for the latter, Van Gelder estimated that sex.com, licensed for an annual fee of roughly US$50 a year, was worth about US$10 million.