Who's Fido?
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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 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.

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 (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 Australia

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.

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 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.

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:

An International Coordinator;
Six Zone Coordinators;
A few dozen Regional Coordinators;
Scores of Net Coordinators; and
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 an independent 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.com ),
and CompuServe compuserve.com ).

More recently, many Fidonet nodes are directly accessible from the
Internet by telnet, as news servers, or as web servers. Some serve as ISPs
as well, merging the two technologies in both directions.

How to Join

The requirements for joining Fidonet are extremely few:

Get a copy of the Fidonet policy document, Policy4 ; Set up a working system; and 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.)

Your best bet is to ask questions of the other sysops in your area via
their BBSs. Most are quite eager to help, and will have all of the
software and utilities you need available for you to download.

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.

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.

If you are already running a Fidonet-style system, you can file-request
FidoNews for the current issue from the Editor's node of 1:1/23.
File-request FNews for the current month in one archive. Or file-request
specific back issue filenames in distribution format [FNEWSEnn.ZIP] for a
particular Issue. Monthly volumes are available as FNWSmmmy.ZIP where mmm = three letter month [JAN - DEC] and y = last digit of the current year
[7], i.e., FNWSAUG7.ZIP for all the issues from August 1997. Annual
volumes are available as FNEWSn.ZIP where n = the volume number 1 - 14 for
1984 - 1997, respectively. Annual volume archives range in size from
48kbytes to 1.4mbytes.

The latest issue is available from

The Editor's Web Site, hot off the presses if you want to download it The
latest issue is also available as a web page in English, Estonian, and
Swedish For offline reading, you can ftp the latest from
ftp://ftp.fidonet.org/fidonews/ Or from a list-server by sending a message
to majordomo@fidonews.org with the command lists in the body Back issues
are also available:

via ftpmail (use a subject line of HELP to get started)
via ftp from the Southern Star or Fidonet.Org, or in yearly archives