WASHINGTON —The long white rectangle at the top of your browser window is about to become a lot more valuable.

On Jan. 12, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as ICANN, began accepting applications for “top-level domains” – the short strings like “com” that go to the right of the dot in a web address.  This initiative will open the floodgates for entrepreneurs to take advantage of new Internet real estate.

“I’ve been in the business ten years and I can tell you, if there is an opportunity to make money in this market, there will be an entity that exists to take advantage of it,” said Roland LaPlante, the senior vice president of Afilias, an internet consulting and registry company that holds the rights to the .info top-level domain.

Through the application process, private companies and individuals can apply for new strings like .shop or .music.  The $185,000 starting price tag is not cheap, but entities will have the rights to control a significant chunk of Internet space.

Kieren McCarthy, general manager of .nxt, a website that provides information on Internet governance, believes the Internet is at a crossroads.

“We currently live in a .com world,” McCarthy said.  “When you open a top-level domain so that anyone can apply, we have to ask ourselves, can we do anything different to not be just another .com?”

According to ICANN, the California based non-profit organization, these new top-level domains are going to be “the next big .thing.”

Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s president hopes the program will “unleash innovation.”

For McCarthy, that innovation means money.

The start of the application process will create a new multi-billion industry “almost overnight” he said.

Entrepreneurs waited more than five years for ICANN to officially open the application period and last week, the scramble for a piece of the now much larger online pie began.

To prevent trademark disputes, ICANN created the Trademark Clearinghouse. When customers try to register domains, the clearinghouse notifies them and the trademark holder of any problems.

.brand and the privatization of the Internet

 Fifteen years ago, google.com was a nonsense domain name with a yearly price tag under $10.

Today, the domain name google.com is “priceless” but its yearly price tag is still under $10, according to Nick Wood, the managing director of the Internet consulting firm Valideus.

“Google has massive distribution architecture [tools and services] that spans hundreds of countries but actually, when it comes to their doorway to the Internet, they are as dependent as my 18-year-old son for his blog on modern music,” Wood said.

For companies with valuable brands, the ability to control their online space is the main attraction of top level domains.

Instead of navigating to nike.com to buy a pair of shoes, a customer could go to “shoes.nike.”

A top-level domain insulates the client and creates control from the top down, Wood said.  “They will be attracting people to go into their gateway in this very interesting environment where a corporation owns absolutely everything,” he said.

A sense of community

 While large corporations see value in a one-stop-shop Internet experience, cyber entrepreneurs are turning their attention towards generic and community top-level domains.

Kit Fox / Medill

These domains are not brand specific and will partition a section of the Internet based on a generic topic.

Tina Dam, co-founder of the Internet consulting firm mytld.com, is aiding a client in purchasing the “.music” top-level domain.

“When you see an address somewhere with .music you will know immediately it has to do with music,” Dam said.  Today new bands have a hard time finding an available domain, so Tina hopes to create a community of music professionals and fans with their own space online.

Potential generic strings buzzing around the Internet include “.eco,” a green-centric community, “.gay,” and city specific strings like “.berlin” and “.london.”

Internet entrepreneur Jeremie Godreche believes his potential top-level domain would open Internet real estate to the majority of the world.  Based in Prague, Godreche is applying for the “.free” top-level domain to provide free domains.

Without yet owning the string, Jeremie’s www.dotfree.com has registered more than 120,000 domains with the .free top-level domain.

“We want to be able to provide people a way to create their online identity from scratch,” Godreche said.

Godreche and his investors plan to offer accessory services for a cost with the hopes that even .free can make real .money.

Cyber speculation

 Roland LaPlante and his company Afilias based in Pennsylvania, advise companies that  are applying for top-level domains to keep their intentions secret.  According to LaPlante, the nature of the top-level domain application process will attract speculators.

With ICANN’s application process, multiple entities applying for the same top-level domain would have to negotiate or face  an auction.

LaPlant said a “scurrilous” applicant could front $185,000 hoping to be paid off to back out of the process.  “I could hold you up and extort you basically without having really done any work.”

To avoid these speculators, companies are wary about publicizing their application until they go public in early May.

New top-level domains are expected to go live in 2013 creating a new online .wild .west for those hoping to strike it rich.