All of this bodes well for Tuvalu, one of the smallest and most remote countries on Earth. The coral atoll nation, only 26 square kilometers altogether in size, is made up of nine specks of islands scattered across the Pacific; 11,000 people live there. Tuvalu’s main industries — selling fishing licenses to offshore trawlers and exporting dried coconut meat — can no longer sustain its economy. The old-world ways of surviving on the islands aren’t viable anymore, because of both climate change and changes in industry.
Instead, Tuvalu’s economic future may lie in its two-letter domain name suffix: .tv. This random assignment of letters on the internet is the modern-day equivalent of striking oil. For Tuvalu, the domain name is akin to a natural resource.
In 1995, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers assigned Tuvalu the .tv domain suffix, one of many country code domain suffix assignments at the time. Five years later, Tuvalu negotiated a contract leasing .tv for $50 million in royalties to Jason Chapnik, a Canadian entrepreneur and investor, over a 12-year period. The current deal, signed in 2011, leases the .tv suffix to VeriSign, a Virginia-based domain name and internet-infrastructure provider.
In 2021, Tuvalu’s agreement with VeriSign will expire. Revenues from the original contract helped pave the country’s eight kilometers of road. Tuvalu has an opportunity to leverage the .tv domain name not only to generate wealth but also to bring in a base level of connectivity for Tuvaluans who are currently offline. There’s a story often shared in the startup world: during the California gold rush, it wasn’t the miners who earned the most money, but those who sold picks and shovels. Tuvalu, when renewing its .tv deal, must monitor the picks and shovels — in this case, the startups and established companies — that are profiting from .tv the most.
Tuvalu has no TV stations of its own. Many households use satellite dishes to beam in channels from Australia, Fiji, and elsewhere. But a World Bank grant approved in 2019 will finance the eventual installation of a submarine fiber-optic cable, which will increase the nation’s bandwidth — possibly enough to stream content. My hope is that Tuvalu will use money from the deal to invest in its citizens by building digital infrastructure and fostering digital literacy.
I was born in Fiji but grew up in Australia and Bangladesh. My mother is Tuvaluan and my father Indo-Fijian. My childhood was diverse, to say the least: I had the foundations of Eastern cultures but the upbringing and education of Western ones. In my daily life, I worked in technologically advanced environments, busying myself with Bitcoin and community building for tech ventures, but my grandmother’s homeland kept calling to me. I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between my kaigas (families) and emerging technologies in the South Pacific.
I started reading about gaming and streaming sites. In 2019, Twitch.tv generated $1.54 billion in revenue. Other esports and video game streaming platforms, like YouTube, Hulu, Caffeine, and Mobcrush, have become lucrative. The domain name .tv is important to their business model too. Tuvalu owns the digital “land” (.tv) on which many of these channels earn their income. And during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, .tv viewership has only increased.
When Tuvalu leased its domain name to VeriSign, in 2011, the value of .tv was not as clear as it is now. According to NameBio, there have been 859 reported .tv domain sales over the past five years, the top 100 of which totaled more than $1.4 billion. When you compare that number with the $50 million Tuvalu originally leased .tv for, the difference is stark.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, I was in Melbourne with my Tuvaluan godmother, Suialofa. She asked me if I knew about the .tv negotiations. I didn’t, but our conversation inspired me to start researching. A few days later, after going down a rabbit hole about domain names, I wrote a piece on Medium that laid out a five-point plan for how Tuvalu could make use of the .tv domain renewal due in 2021.
I wrote the article from Singapore, where I now live and work. Singapore is an island city-state whose remarkable transformation was led by the late Lee Kuan Yew. In 1965, freshly independent from Malaysia, Singapore had no natural resources. But under his leadership it leveraged its strategic port location, and, within 50 years, Singapore was able to turn itself into a world-class financial hub. Thinking about Singapore, I realized that the small island nation of Tuvalu could have a similar opportunity.
The article was shared on Facebook and through my family networks, and it eventually came to the attention of Timi Melei, a member of Tuvalu’s parliament. This resulted in an invitation from Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s minister for Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, to join the country’s newly formed Information and Communications Technology Task Force. In this role, I am helping Tuvalu build a national digital ledger using Bitcoin (BSV). This blockchain technology will be used to register and identify citizens. The long-term goal is to make Tuvalu’s government departments and centers of administration more secure, more accountable, and paper-free by 2030.
To ensure that it gets the best deal in the .tv negotiations, Tuvalu should open the bidding for the renewal rights to the public. This way, Tuvaluans will see how much corporations are willing to pay for their domain name, and its true value will be made transparent to all parties. In a bidding war, no one will be able to coerce or exploit Tuvalu behind closed doors.
Earlier in my career, I worried that Tuvalu would not have an economic future. Now, I know that the island nation possesses all it needs to survive in the modern world.