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What Is FidoNet ?
FidoNet is an amateur electronic mail network with about 30,000 mail nodes world wide. Since most mail nodes are publicly accessible Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), some of which have hundreds of members, FidoNet probably ranks up there alongside some of the better known commercial on-line services in terms of the number of people who use it.
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 originated in 1984 among a few BBS sysops in the USA with the idea to link up each others message bases. It expanded into a worldwide amateur message network within a few years, linking more than 30.000 BBS systems.
FidoNet offers two basic types of service:
Netmail is the very origin of FidoNet. It is simple, person to person, electronic mail messages. It is meant as an extention of the local Bulletin Board messages you are already used to on this BBS. The difference is that you will be able through Fido NetMail to adress a message to a user of another BBS without having to call that BBS. As long as you know what BBS your friend is calling (and provided that this remote BBS also participates in FidoNet too) you can adress him your message on this BBS in the Fido Netmail area. For this purpose we also maintain a regurlarly updated list of all connected Fido BBS's. Through the Fido Network your message will then be relayed to the other BBS. This can be a BBS in Brussels, or on the other side of the world, or anywhere in between. Messages that have to travel further might take a bit longer to arrive at destination.
Echomail is a broadcast medium: every message that anyone enters, anywhere in FidoNet, gets distributed automatically to every other person who has subscribed to that particular conference (or echo, conferences are called echo's in Fido world). 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.
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 (and some other helpful information). A FidoNet address consists of four components:
The highest component of a FidoNet address is the Zone number, which ranges from 1 to 6. 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
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.
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.
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.
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 like 1:142/928.0
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 which have bundles of Echomail available for FTP; since many sysops have Internet access, this is a convenient alternative for some.
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.
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:
- An International Coordinator - Six Zone Coordinators - A few dozen Regional Coordinators - Scores of Net Coordinators - A large number of Hub Coordinators.
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
- Meet the technical requirements promulgated by a standards committee - Use a current Nodelist - Be able to receive mail at the appointed time (each Zone designates an hour for this) - Do not be excessively annoying; and - Do not be too easily annoyed.
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.