While Tuvalu in recent years has made global news through its fight against climate change that threatens the country’s atoll archipelago, most people are unaware of the tech innovation that contributes to the country’s GDP: selling the country’s unique domain name allocation behind many major commercial and government websites – .tv.
A shortening of the name Tuvalu – meaning ‘the eight stand together’ – the domain name .tv was assigned as the country-code domain name during the early years of the internet. The domain suffix today has been used by a number of popular websites and journalism services due to its succinct referential value, such as pedestrian.tv, Hollywood.tv, reuters.tv, and russia.tv. The domain name is also used by the UK government for streaming services including parliamentlive.tv (UK Parliament), senedd.tv (Welsh Assembly), niassembly.tv (Northern Ireland Assembly), and scottishparliament.tv (Scottish Parliament). This unique commodity means that people watching their own national assembly on the other side of the planet are actually viewing websites technically tied to Tuvalu.
Despite this relatively prominent and expansive global digital presence, the country itself has only a very modest technological capacity – with 2016 estimates of internet penetration of 46%, and the country ironically itself having no national television station.
Leveraging the .tv domain has provided the country with relatively significant revenue. Following the domain’s allocation in the 1980s, the Tuvaluan government along with the International Telecommunications Union established a bidding process for the selection of a marketing partner for its coveted domain suffix. In 1998 the Tuvaluan Government accepted a bid for US$50 million from Canadian website information.ca, totalling five times the nation’s 1997 gross domestic product. However, delays in the initial payment and other unforeseen issues resulted in an altered and downgraded payment through multiple other companies and entities. Renewed by the Tuvaluan Government in 2012, the current rights to .tv are owned by VeriSign, who markets the domain as “where the world turns to for entertainment”. In Funafuti, the management of .tv revenue is administered by the Ministry of Communication and Transport, which lists domain registrations as one of the largest revenue raisers – alongside registry of (much more tangible) marine vessels.
Media attention on this story has led to impressions of huge wealth for the small atoll nation, with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation emphasising the ‘raked in millions’ for Tuvalu. The reality is more modest: current predictions for 2019-2020 in the 2018 national budget approximated a total revenue plateauing at US$5.5 million a year, well short of some estimates of US$160 million.
Journalism has, unfortunately, reproduced similar incorrect perspectives on its wealth attributing .tv revenue as paying for a many of projects, such as paving the Funafuti road network, electrifying the outer islands, funding the country’s first streetlights, the country’s climate change migration, and even in helping the country obtain UN membership. Many of these myths have been deconstructed here in a 2015 paper by consultant James Conway.
As Conway highlighted, perhaps ‘only the effects of climate change have given Tuvalu more worldwide media exposure’ than the .tv market. Despite its false hopes of an instant economic panacea, the small coral nation has proved itself remarkably resourceful, demonstrating that you don’t have to be a world power to have a significant digital imprint.
Mitiana Arbon is a doctoral candidate in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University and an editor of The New Outrigger.