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The auction of a rare single-letter domain – e.co – has just hit the interwebs, with bids reaching $16,500 in the first 90 minutes.

The sale is advertised on the domain itself, with the name pitched as the potential “home to your e-commerce site, education site, entertainment site” or even “to showcase your company's plan to launch an entirely new e.CO friendly strategy.”

The auction, which closes in just over three days, is being closely watched by the domaining industry as it tries to get a fix on the state of the market for Internet addresses. Not only have domain name sales suffered alongside the economy, but next year, it is expected that several hundred new extensions will appear as the body in charge, ICANN, liberalizes the rules around running a piece of the domain name system.

In January this year, the CEO of Oversee.net, Jeff Kupietzky, told his audience at industry conference DomainFest that he felt the nascent market for domain names was in a similar position to the very early days of the New York Stock Exchange, where rights in stock were initially traded by a very small group of people.

The e.co domain is unusual in that it is not one of the “generic” top-level domains such as dot-com or dot-info but instead follows a recent trend of “country code” domains putting themselves out into the open market.

Famously, the tiny island of Tuvalu sold its rights in the dot-tv extension to a US company, which then positioned it at media companies. And most recently dot-me domains (the top-level domain designated for Montenegro) have become popular, with their price at auction gradually increasing – although still remaining a long way from the value of dot-coms.

Now dot-co (representing Colombia) has joined the party, following a re-delegation of the domain after a nine-year power struggle between the government and the University of Bogota. Control of dot-co domains finally ended up in the hands of Miami-based Internet SAS, which has spent the past few months aggressively marketing the domain.

Its CEO, Juan Diego Calle, views dot-co’s appeal as being a cheaper and less crowded alternative to the saturated dot-com registry, where even strangely named domains regularly sell for thousands of dollars.

The auction of e.co may help provide a handle on whether the rest of the Internet agrees with Calle’s perspective. Currently, the dot-co registry is going through a “sunrise” period where trademark holders can reserve domains. Then there will be a “landrush” starting 21 June where people can put forward requests for high-value domains (which they will later fight over). And finally, on July 20, the registry will be opened to all on a first-come, first-served basis.

As to e.co’s likely success, one potential bidder is the company applying for the new dot-eco Internet extension. Big Room’s co-founder Jacob Malthouse told us that they see more benefit in running a true registry rather than one domain in a broader bucket of dot-co domains. "While e.co is an interesting idea,” he told us, “we are committed to working with our community to establish a dot-eco registry." ®

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