Final notice

Ever notice how, every few months, some high-profile Web site forgets to pay its domain-name registration fee and loses its connection to the Net? In June, it was Wall Street's J. P. Morgan & Co., whose site disappeared after someone forgot to pay the renewal fee for Last December, it was Microsoft's Hotmail free e-mail service that went down on Christmas Eve for the same reason. Morgan ponied up the renewal fee itself to get back online; in the Hotmail case, a generous Linux consultant kicked in the $35 to restart the service.

Domain-name deadbeats are so common these days that Network Solutions Inc. is auctioning off a batch of domain names that customers registered for but didn't pay for. (Contrary to some newspaper reports late last month, NSI didn't just send out pay-by-Wednesday-or-get-auctioned notices. The company says it has been dunning those customers for months.)

And it's not just unpaid domain-name bills that can get businesses into trouble. Software license fees, bills from Internet service providers and application service providers - if they don't get paid, a department or a whole business could be shut down overnight.

And too often, they don't get paid. A bill just falls between the cracks. Maybe the guy who used to pay it changed jobs. Or the company moved. Or e-mail addresses changed. Or everybody thinks another department is supposed to pay it. Whatever the reason, the result is a mess - or worse.

Let's face it: It's easy to forget about some of these Web-related bills. A domain name costs between $15 and $35 per year - wildly out of proportion with its importance to your business.

And while Web server licenses may cost more, sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly who's supposed to cut the check - IT? A user department? A business partner? Any confusion will just get worse as you get deeper into business-to-business e-commerce.

Worse still, under UCITA, the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act that has already passed several state legislatures, software vendors can build an "automatic restraint" into their products that disables the software once the license expires. Forget to pay that bill and the software may simply stop working. And if it stops working, users won't turn to accounts payable. They'll point the finger at IT.

So what can we do to make sure things keep working? Never mind tying a string around your finger. Just make a list.

Make a list of all those fees and licenses and the dates they'll come due. Internet service provider and application service provider contracts, domain-name registrations, software licenses - hunt them all down, especially the ones IT isn't responsible for paying.

Then choose a few people to monitor and maintain the list. Their job will be keeping the list updated, reminding the bill payers when the due dates get close and warning management if a user department or business partner seems to be letting it slide.

And then create a policy - a clear, unambiguous set of rules for what should be done and when. You'll need your upper management's support for this, because you'll have to develop the policy with other departments and divisions, and maybe even other companies.

But it'll probably take longer to hammer out that policy than to inventory all the bills to pay. The politics may get ugly. The negotiations could get painful.

So first, make that list. Start making it today.

Because if your site or your software shuts down because a bill isn't paid, no one will forget whom to blame.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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