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What Is FidoNet ® ? Woof!

FidoNet is an amateur electronic mail network with over 15,000 mail nodes world wide. Most mail nodes are publicly accessible Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), some of which have hundreds of members. Before Internet access became commonplace, FidoNet probably ranked up there alongside some of the better known commercial on-line services in terms of the number of people who used it. Now, of course, it is adapting to the new technologies and many FidoNet systems are also web servers, news servers, and generally accessible over the Internet in one way or another.

FidoNet nodes are often personal computers in somebody's basement; the system operator (sysop) may be a young child or a retired grandfather. Some nodes are networks consisting of dozens of PCs or larger systems, and some are run by governments, fire departments, or large corporations to support the needs of their constituents or customers. A few are actually money making ventures.

FidoNet offers three basic types of service:

Netmail:
Netmail is linked to the origin of FidoNet. It is simple, person to person, electronic mail messages.

Echomail:
Echomail is a broadcast medium: every message that anyone enters, anywhere in FidoNet, gets distributed automatically to every other person who has subscribed to a particular conference (or echo). What kinds of conferences does FidoNet carry? There is something for everyone: genealogy, Star Trek, quilting, various software and hardware products, and just plain "chat" echoes.

Each conference has one or more moderators, whose job it is to ensure the smooth flow of conversation and to keep people more or less on topic and within the bounds of common politeness. However, unlike some other conference schemes which allow each message to be examined before it is distributed, Echomail is wide open. A moderator cannot remove a message nor prevent others from reading it. For this reason, the moderator has only one power, and it is considered absolute: the moderator can insist that anyone's access to the conference be severed.

The moderator's powers are one reason that echomail hasn't been completely obsoleted by Internet newsgroups: it is easier for a moderator to control problem posters and spam is much less likely.

File Distributions:
In addition to electronic mail, FidoNet can (and does) distribute programs, pictures, and text files. This is similar to Echomail, although somewhat more centralized: a system subscribes to a File Distribution and then receives all files that are placed into distribution at one or more points of origin. These File Distributions are as varied as Echomail: they include shareware programs (try before you buy) of all kinds, works of literature published by Project Gutenburg (dedicated to making all public domain and copyright expired literature available in machine readable form at no charge), pictures of missing children and adults (no milk carton required), and the Tibetan Electronic Resource Guide.


How FidoNet Works

FidoNet is designed around point to point transfers: each system can call any other system (literally, using phone lines and modems, or metaphorically through some other mechanism). In order to do this, it depends upon a telephone directory called the Nodelist . The Nodelist allows you to look up a system by its node number and retrieve a telephone number or IP address (and some other helpful information). A FidoNet address consists of four components:

Zone:
The highest component of a FidoNet address is the Zone number, which ranges from 1 to 6. (Other Zone numbers are used by networks which are not part of FidoNet, but use the same technology.) Each Zone corresponds approximately to a continent:

Zone 1 is the USA, Canada, and the Caribbean

Zone 2 is Europe, including Russian Asia

Zone 3 is Australasia

Zone 4 is Latin America

Zone 5 is Africa

Zone 6 is the Asian Pacific

(Region:)
For practical and historical reasons, each Zone is divided into Regions. A Region is a contiguous portion of a Zone, but it isn't used when specifying an address.

Net:
The Net is a geographical area within a Region; Nets may be large or small, covering a large state or a part of one city, but are set up primarily to minimize telephone company charges. The geographical definition of a Net has seen some elasticity with the reduced reliance on telephone calls to actually move the mail.

Node:
A Node was originally an individual system, but in practice corresponds to an individual phone number; a system may have more than one phone number, and the only way to list more than one phone number is to assign each a unique node number.

Point:
Technically, Points are not members of FidoNet; they are "subnodes" and are not directly called by Nodes under most circumstances. Newer software does support having Points in the Nodelist, though, and can call them.

So, a complete FidoNet address would look like1:142/928.0

Each level (Zone, Region, and Net) has a Coordinator whose primary duty is to assemble the corresponding portion of the Nodelist.

How does FidoNet really move the mail?

Not by having every node call every other one, of course; although that is still done if the sysop really wants to make sure that his Netmail is delivered. Each type of traffic travels slightly differently, and generally it moves along paths which are mutually agreed upon by the sysops involved. This type of transfer is called store and forward.

Netmail can move directly, from the originating Node to the destination; but it can also move via Low Priority Mail (LPM). LPM relies upon the fact that most systems will automatically accept any incoming Netmail and move it on its way in the general direction of its destination. That might mean sending it to an intermediate system in an adjacent town, or it might mean sending it to a hub in a central location, or it might mean sending it up to someone in the FidoNet hierarchy. The Coordinators move things up and down anyway, so a message might go up three levels and down three levels to cross the globe.

Echomail moves every which way. Because of the sheer volume of Echomail, most systems do not handle every conference. Each system which handles a conference makes copies of each message for any adjacent systems which haven't already seen it and sends the copies on their way. Arranging for Echomail to be shipped around used to be a major problem, so much so that special Echomail Coordinators exist at each level in the administrative hierarchy. Their primary duty is to make sure that Echomail doesn't start running in circles.

New technology has greatly simplified the transportation of Echomail. For example, in North America almost every echo is broadcast from a satellite to special receivers on the ground; the equipment and use of this service is much cheaper than the long distance telephone calls needed to accomplish the same thing. (The return traffic, which is relatively small from any individual system, still goes by telephone most of the time.) As an alternative, there are systems on the Internet that have bundles of Echomail available for FTP, or via some kind of FidoNet-specific protocol; since many sysops have Internet access, this is a convenient alternative.

Although FidoNet is a volunteer organization with no paid staff and no membership fees, some of these Echomail providers do charge for their service. This has occasioned some debate, but since their customers usually save a lot of money over the "old way" there is no orchestrated move at this time to do anything about it one way or the other. Any sysop is free to get his Echomail wherever he likes, so long as he doesn't cause technical problems for others (by inadvertently creating circular paths, for example); so if you don't like the way one source is doing things, you can go elsewhere at the drop of a hat.

File Distributions work the same as Echomail in most regards.


Who Runs FidoNet?

The nodes which make up FidoNet are owned by individual hobbyists, schools, businesses, newspapers, governments, and clubs. Since most of them are Bulletin Board Systems first, and FidoNet nodes second, they are an independent lot; they always have the option of leaving FidoNet, adding or even starting other networks (both FTNs and others), or just going it alone.

Curiously (or perhaps inevitably) for such a loosely defined group, FidoNet is not a democracy. It is formally an autocracy consisting of:

The IC is elected by the Zone Coordinators from among themselves; the Zone Coordinators are elected by the Regional Coordinators in their Zone; and all of the other Coordinators are appointed by the level above them, and serve at pleasure. (Note that the Zone Coordinator appoints the very Regional Coordinators who in turn elect him.) The primary duty of each Coordinator is to edit a portion of the Nodelist; that portion is sent up the chain for consolidation and then a master update is passed back down. Their other duty is to settle disputes; their only power to enforce their decisions is embodied in their control of a Nodelist segment, and that means that the only effective punishment which can be meted out is excommunication (loss of a Nodelist entry). The Network Coordinators have the additional duty of fielding new node applications (see How to Join ).

None of the Coordinators is paid, nor are they under any contractual constraints: FidoNet has no corporate existence in any formal legal sense, and no dues, meetings, or any of the usual trappings of an association or club. In fact, FidoNet has very few rules, chiefly

Clearly there is some room for interpretation, and so the diplomatic skills of a Coordinator can make the difference between a happy Net and a Net in open rebellion.

The tension between a rigid autocracy on the one hand and a "go shove it" attitude on the part of the individual sysops is what keeps FidoNet flexible (and keeps certain echoes boiling). In many places, Coordinators are effectively elected despite the rules: the winner of the election is appointed by the Coordinator above.

All of this is spelled out in the document referred to as " Policy4 " (P4); despite its shortcomings, every attempt to replace or amend P4 has failed.


FidoNet and Other Nets

FidoNet has inspired other networks using similar software; these are often referred to as Fido Technology Networks (FTN). Many FidoNet sysops belong to a dozen or so FTNs. Some of these FTNs arose out of political fights within FidoNet, some deal with local issues, and some are just for people with special interests (not necessarily sexual). Many of these other networks have gateways which link Netmail and Echomail back and forth with FidoNet.

The Internet is another animal altogether. Every FidoNet node has an Internet address which is based upon its FidoNet address. An example would be

p1.f928.n142.z1.fidonet.org

There are systems throughout the world which function as mail gateways between the two networks. There is no default gateway, however, so a particular FidoNet node may or may not be able to receive mail from the Internet.

By virtue of having an Internet address, and the ability to address systems on the Internet, a FidoNet message can be sent to or received from other networks such as AmericaOnline (aol.com ), Prodigy ( prodigy.net ), and CompuServe ( compuserve.com ).

More recently, many FidoNet nodes are directly accessible from the Internet by telnet, as news servers, or as web servers such as http://www.fido-online.com/ which is in both Russian and English.. Some serve as ISPs as well, merging the two technologies in both directions. A web search engine will turn up tens of thousands of hits if you search on the word "FidoNet."


How to Join

The requirements for joining FidoNet are extremely few:

  1. Get a copy of the FidoNet policy document, Policy4 ;
  2. Get a copy of the FidoNet Nodelist;
  3. Set up a working system; and
  4. Send a Netmail message directly to the nearest Net Coordinator with the information spelled out in Policy4 , and agreeing to abide by its technical requirements (primarily the ability to send and receive mail, at a minimum for one hour per day during the middle of the night).

Once you are in, you can then make arrangements with other sysops to get your mail.

In practice, it can be a little more complicated, of course. Policy4 is pretty clear, but it won't help you set up your software. Some software is well documented, some is not; some is a beast to configure, some is not; some is free, some is not. Assembling all of the bits and pieces takes time and technical savvy. (The analogy to ham radio is not accidental.)

You may want to join FidoNet as an Internet-Only Node (ION). It sounds like a paradox, but there are many such nodes in FidoNet. They enjoy the comradeship that FidoNet's size allows, but don't want to devote a phone line to it. Joining as an ION may pose special challenges, since the Net Coordinator who covers your location might not be set up to handle Internet-based traffic. In that case, you should contact one of the existing Internet-capable nodes for assistance. The IP-based FidoNet mail movers would be a good place to start. Shannon Talley, 1:275/311, maintains this list.

Conversely, it might be that the Net Coordinator for your area doesn't have dial-up capabilities. In that case, there may be a hub listed specifically to accommodate dial-up nodes; or you might have to contact another sysop for guidance.

Your best bet is to ask questions of the other sysops. Most are quite eager to help, and will have all of the software and utilities you need available for you to download. I can be reached at jerryschwartz@comfortable.com and would be happy to give you a hand.


Needful Things

Now that dial-up Bulletin Board Systems are few and far between, your best bet for assembling the pieces you'll need is to search the Internet for "FidoNet." Particularly useful sites include


FidoNews

Like most other communities, FidoNet has a newsletter: FidoNews, published every Monday. Submissions come from all over, since anyone can make a submission and the Editor traditionally has a very light hand. FidoNews is sent as a file distribution world wide, and is also available on the Internet in a number of ways.

The current issue of FidoNews includes lists of FidoNet-related web sites, types of software, Internet-based hubs, and so forth.

Obtaining copies: The most recent issue of FidoNews in electronic form may be obtained from the FidoNews Editor via manual download or file-request, or from various sites in the FidoNet and Internet.

FidoNews is available from

Many of these sources also have back issues available. Individual issues are named FNEWSynn.ZIP, where y is a letter designating the year (H is 2000, G is 1999, F is 1998, etc.) and nn is a two-digit number representing the week of the year.


Written by Jerry Schwartz, 1:142/928. © Copyright Jerry Schwartz 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003

Fido®, FidoNet®, and the dog with diskette are registered marks of Tom Jennings and Fido Software. The version of the dog with diskette used in this document was found on Wangi's World-Wide-Web Fidonet Resource (no longer extant) and is used without permission.