Carleton University
Workinmg Papers in Puplic Access Netowrks
Working Paper 0992.dodd

What is a FidoNet?
Discussion of the Growth and Development
of an Amateur Computer Network

Carol Anne Dodd

Carleton University
March, 1992

Very few would argue that information bears no relevance to the concept of a democratic society. Most of these societies have entrenched this principle into the constitutions and charters that guide them. Yet although the right to expression and exchange of ideas is guaranteed, the means by which this information can be disseminated have been heavily protected and regulated. Since the 60s however, technological booms have increased the efficiency and potential accessibility of the information flow. The use of computers for data transmission has revolutionized the concept of information dissemination in such a way that these times have been dubbed the "Information Age." The irony of this title lies in the reality that few are permitted to benefit and greater lengths are taken to limit access to the information source.

However, along with this technological boom came the accessibility of the means to achieve the end. The boom provided many individuals with a powerful technology heretofore inaccessible to the layperson. With this technology a creative few discovered the means to turn a home computer from a typewriter into a printing press. The technology provided them with the key to the rapid and efficient dissemination of information and eventually to the source of the existing information resources.

As the largest amateur information network in the world, FidoNet was born out of accessible technology, creativity and a strong desire of individuals to be a part of the "Information Age". Since the early 1980s FidoNet has been instrumental in the dissemination of ideas and in making accessible the technology necessary to this end. In less than a decade it has grown to span "over 30 countries in North and South America, all parts of the pacific rim including the Orient, Australia and New Zealand, Western and parts of eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa" (fido.txt) with over 10,000 nodes (addresses) worldwide.

However, despite its celeritous development and evolution, and all best intentions, the future of FidoNet as a major force in the dissemination and accessibility of information continues to be threatened by its inability to reconcile its function as a force for the development of data transfer technology and its role as a gateway to the information resource. The resolution of the conflict between its technological and communicative functions, which originated from its inception and continues to be prevalent throughout the network structure, will determine its direction and allow it to continue to thrive.

Before any discussion on the nature and origins of FidoNet is allowed to continue, certain issues items must be clarified. FidoNet is an amateur network: it was constructed at a grassroots level, and is not controlled or regulated (or funded) by any outside body. Use of FidoNet for commercial activity is strictly forbidden. The network itself is best described as a series of privately owned and independently operated terminals using a common information transfer protocol and compatible utilities to transfer information over private telephone lines. "FidoNet is not a common carrier or a value-added service network and is a public network only in as much as the independent, constituent nodes may individually provide public access to the network on their system." (policy 4.07, June 1989)

FidoNet is an abstract entity: it's structure is defined by purpose and is ever changing to accommodate the needs of those who utilize it. There is no common history of FidoNet beyond the initial creation of the technology. The rapid dissemination of information permitted by the FidoNet utility allowed for the standard to be adopted in various parts of the world virtually simultaneously. For this reason, the growth of FidoNet cannot be observed beyond the evolution of the utility and the adaptations of the mail transfer structure to accommodate the network's expansion.

There is no Official FidoNet history. Nowhere does there exist a formal, objective documentation on the creation and evolution of the network, instead the history of FidoNet must be pieced together from the personal accounts and observations of various participants about their FidoNet experience in their local network. For this reason, FidoNet history is fraught with contradiction and severely limited scope. This study is bounded by the limitations of the available data. In certain instances special attention may be drawn to FidoNet activity in Eastern Ontario to compensate for the diversity and ambiguity of the network as a whole. Eastern Ontario represents the highest, and some of the earliest, FidoNet activity in the country and is therefore a suitable microcosm of FidoNet in Canada.

FidoNet began as a direct mail exchange program created and tested by Tom Jennings in San Francisco and John Madill in Baltimore in 1983. "They designed a system where, as a nightly event, [each BBS] would shut down and run utilities that automatically transferred the changed files between author's BBSs" (Harry Newton, 1991). The utility, according to Tom Jennings was created initially "to see if it could be done" (Jennings feb85, FidoNet History) but it's usefulness for the exchange of information quickly became apparent. As messages were more quickly transmitted through phone lines as condensed "packets," more information could be sent the distance without spending as much time on long distance lines. The power of this rapid, inexpensive transfer of information and files was immediately demonstrated in the exponential expansion and development of the original technology. Facilitated data transfer allowed more developers to work on the technology simultaneously and to efficiently exchange necessary data.

Within a very short period of time, Jennings and Madill were communicating with a much greater number of systems (over 30 in 1984 by Jennings' account but this number appears to refer only to the core FidoNet group and not ALL systems utilizing the FidoNet utility). At this time the format of information exchanged was limited to either data files (as in programming source code etc.) or as E-mail type messages called Netmail.

As the number of Fido systems grew, the simple method of direct packet exchange between point A and point B was no longer practicable. A method of moving information to various points became necessary. This was the beginning of the routing system (the backbone): information destined for one system could be sent to another and passed on until it reached it's destination. The increase in FidoNet participants also necessitated a method of identification to ensure that routed information (hereafter referred to as mail) reached it's destination. Each FidoNet system was then given an address (called a node) that was included on a Nodelist that was distributed to each FidoNet system and updated as new systems joined the network. To this date the Nodelist is the most concrete representation of the network and is the single most important component in its operation.

As the number of systems increased adjustments needed to be made: "the Fido software was changing [...] rapidly, to accommodate all the changes (literally a version a day for a few weeks)." (Jennings 1985, Fido History) One of the significant changes was the creation of Echomail in 1985. The concept was born from a group of Dallas Fido system operators desire to communicate more effectively. Their needs were discussed collectively and a working utility was produced by Jeff Rush. ( Opus Sysop Operations Manual, p155) Echomail combined the notion of Netmail with the established routing technology. Discussion conferences were created on a variety of topics where participants messages would be distributed along the backbone to any system that had signed up for the conference. The movement and distribution of Echomail quickly became a fundamental and critical part of FidoNet.

Meanwhile, even as Tom Jennings and John Madill distributed the FidoNet utility to their colleagues throughout the United States, it was spreading to various other parts of the U.S., Canada and Western Europe simultaneously creating a series of small localized networks which contributed to further spread of the technology.

As early as 1983, FidoNet had expanded into Canada. "Andy Lusher [...] Was the first [system operator] in this area to connect to the FidoNet system as a [system operator]. Shortly after, [...] Al Hacker started running a FidoNet BBS in Ottawa and applied for a network number which was granted." (Charles Herriot, History of Net163) Within 2 years the number of FidoNet nodes within the Ottawa area had grown to 10 nodes, another 7 joined the following year. The local network was not part of the established backbone at that time and the receipt of echomail necessitated the local system operators to take turns making the long distance call to FidoNet BBSes in the United States . (Charles Herriot, A History of Net 163) The FidoNet backbone was extended as the number of FidoNet systems eventually increased.

Growth within FidoNet has been phenomenal. In under 10 years the technology has spanned almost every continent with an estimated 13,000 nodes worldwide (actual numbers are unavailable as systems continuously drop out or join at any given time). However this number does not include all Fido compatible systems as there are an innumerable number of BBSes and private systems that receive FidoNet mail from a Fido node but do not have their own Fidonode address. In addition there a a growing number (over 80) of Othernets (alternate amateur networks using FidoNet protocol, utilities and mail transfer procedures) which all support an indeterminate number of nodes and many of which receive and contribute to FidoNet echomail traffic.

FidoNet in the National Capital Area has grown to over 152 nodes hosted by three local networks (two in Ottawa, one in Petawawa) since 1983. That represents an average growth of approximately 17 nodes per year in the Ottawa area alone (close to 1500 nodes per year worldwide).

In order to accommodate the demands of information dissemination between the growing number of nodes, a more effective mail delivery system needed to be established. Using the currently evolving system, a FidoNet mail delivery structure was created and continues as the *base* of FidoNet structure today. The principle lay basically in dividing the network into manageable parts which meant dividing the nodes on the nodelist geographically and breaking the network down into smaller groups.

Today the nodes are broken down primarily by Zones, which are generally delineated by continental boundaries (ie Zone 1 - North America, Zone 2 -Europe, Zone 3 -Oceania, Zone 4 -Latin America, Zone 5 -Africa, and Zone 6 -Asia). These Zones are further broken down into smaller Regions that generally encompass an area containing 2-3 states or provinces in Zone 1 or one or two countries in Zone 2. Within these Regions are any number of Local Networks or independent nodes called Regional Independents (where no local network exists). Nodes may be divided into smaller Hubs within large networks. An administrative structure has been put in place at each level of the structure to oversee the proper flow of mail and the management and update of the Nodelist.

The operation of this structure can be demonstrated through the flow of mail from its entry point ( for example, a local node) to its destination (say a European node, in Zone 2). The sender would enter the message at the local node. The node compresses the message along with other outbound mail and send it along to its local Hub. The Hub sends the mail received from all of its nodes on to the Network Coordinator (NC) who, in turn, sends the mail received from all of the Local Network Hubs on to the Regional Coordinator (RC) . The Regional Coordinator passes the Local Networks' and Regional Independents' mail on to the Zone Coordinator (ZC) for that Zone. The Zone Coordinator would then send the mail over to the destination Zone to be distributed through the structure to the destination node. Of course , in echomail, the message would be distributed to all systems along the structure that carried the discussion group into which the message was entered. In the case of international distribution echomail (as in this example), the Zone Coordinator of the entry point Zone would distribute the mail to all other Zones, including the destination Zone, for distribution to nodes who carry the conference.

This structure was developed to minimize long distance charges in the dissemination of mail and to ensure that the information is distributed to FidoNet in its entirety. Remaining long distance charges, incurred from connect time between each level of the *C ( *C refers to any or all level of Coordinator) structure, is recovered from the individual nodes and passed along the structure in such a way that each level is subsidized by the one beneath it. The method of cost recovery is at the discretion of each local network. In NET163 (the largest of the three Local Networks), echomail contributions are voluntary, no fee structure exists but nodes receiving a great deal of echomail are encouraged to contribute accordingly. The Ottawa area nodes differ as well in that the Regional Coordinator for Eastern Canada is a member of the Ottawa Network and no long distance charges are incurred in the mail transfer between these points. However, the Ottawa networks continue to subsidize the Regional Coordinator to offset the costs of other long distance networks within the region.

In an attempt to enforce and protect this mail delivery system, a basic FidoNet policy document was put in place. It was recognized that "FidoNet is large enough that it would quickly fall apart of its own weight unless some sort of structure and control were imposed on it. Multinet operation provides the structure. Decentralized management provides the control. This document describes the procedures which have been developed to manage the network." (policy 4.07, June 1989)

The scope of FidoNet policy is limited to the definition of each level of the structure and its purpose in the movement of mail. For example, the administrative responsibilities of the Network Coordinator are outlined as follows:

"1) To receive incoming mail for nodes in the network, and arrange delivery to its recipients.

2) To assign node numbers to nodes in the network.

3) To maintain the nodelist for the network, and to send a copy of it to the Regional Coordinator whenever it changes.

4) To make available to nodes in the network new nodelist difference files, new issues of Fidonews, and new revisions of Network Policy Documents as they are received, and to periodically check to ensure that nodes use up to date nodelists." (policy 4.07 June 1989)

Regulations guiding FidoNet are limited to the obligation of sustaining compatibility with FidoNet standards and of making the node available exclusively for mail transfer for one hour per day (the Zone Mail Hour, also know as ZMH). Every other aspect of the control and regulation of FidoNet is regulated by two very general commandments: "Thou shalt not excessively annoy others" and "Thou shalt not be too easily annoyed." (policy 4.07 June 1989) The definition of these terms is left at the discretion of the *C structure. The document also outlines a voting mechanism for the appointment of higher *C (Zone Coordinator) positions and for the approval of policy documents. Network Coordinators and Regional Coordinators are appointed by their superior level (However, elections are held in Region 12 for RC and within Net163 for NC).

There is no specific policy concerning echomail cost compensation nor are there any specifications as the to the operations of FidoNet nodes or the information content of individual systems (moderators of discussion groups may impose some regulations to this end). The limited scope of FidoNet policy is intended to account for the diversity of needs of FidoNet nodes and to allow for their accommodation by the Local Networks themselves. FidoNet recognizes the right of system operators to manage their individual systems in any manor chosen (within the law). A strict technical interpretation of the network also prevents the imposition of culturally biased values on international nodes.

However, since FidoNet Policy has not been updated since 1989 and the network is in a constant state of evolution and growth, many aspects of FidoNet have gone unregulated. Although Policy Document 4.07 allows for the appointment of an "assistant" to help the Coordinator with the mail processing burden, it in no way provides for the current evolution of FidoNet. As the number of nodes continued to increase, it became common practice for Coordinators to appoint assistants to process mail while the Coordinators saw to the general administration of the network. This became such common practice (some would say a necessity) that an entire sub-structure of Echomail Coordinators (*EC) was created to move the mail while the *C structure tended to the administration. Ambiguity in the existing policy document, and their removal from the general administration of the network, led to an eventual attempt at autonomy by the *EC structure from the established Coordinator structure.

The network today finds itself in a struggle between conflicting views on the direction and mandate of FidoNet. Factions within the network have begun to align themselves along two broad points of view. These affiliation can in effect be characterized by the very existence of the two structures. One side of the debate recognizes FidoNet as a powerful medium of communication; a means for the free flow of ideas and the exchange of knowledge. The other side identifies FidoNet as a means for the development of fast and efficient data transfer technology. One structure ensures the growth and development of the network, the other tends toward the increasing efficiency and speed of the movement of mail.

As would be expected, ensuing discussion about the direction and purpose of the network has lead to growing disaccord and politicization throughout FidoNet. In the case of some Local Networks, as in Ottawa's Net163, these factors have led to an all-out war.

Net163 was created at the "very beginning" of FidoNet and has evolved and progressed along with it. Alignments were formed within a very short period of time, as disagreements mounted over the direction and purpose of the network. Two factions became quite apparent (as described by Charles Herriot [making no attempt to disguise his alignment]):

"SOCIALOIDS: generally the Visiting team in a [disagreement] of any kind. These people labour under the delusion that FidoNet is a hobby meant to be enjoyed [...]

TECHNOIDS: the home team when Netwars are played. The technoids believe that technical performance outweighs whether anyone actually enters messages or not [...]" (Charles Herriot, The Net 163 Coles Notes, July 1991.)

Typical items of contention were the content of messages and "appropriate" topics of discussion, the use of pseudonyms, and interpretation and equal application of policy. There was general disapproval of the "Socialoids'" lack of interest in the technology and with the "Technoids'" inflexibility.

The one group encourages the use of FidoNet for communication and attempts to inspire the less technically adept to set up the FidoNet compatible systems to become nodes. A local help manual was produced in order to explain in a clear simple way the "basics" and functioning of FidoNet to new system operators. A Welcome Wagon node was also established to provide new members with information or names of those FidoNet operators who are available and willing to help with the technology. "Socialoids" advocate the bending of rules and liberal interpretation of policy, in some instances, for the less adept.

The other side advocates the strict adherence to structure and technical specifications. The "Technoids" discourage admission of non- technically oriented people into FidoNet because of the potential for error and disruption of the mail transfer system. New system operators seeking help are often met with hostility. This attitude is apparent in the testimonial of a new Net163 sysop who had managed to set up a running, FidoNet compatible system despite his admission of knowing only "about three DOS commands, and how to type 'telix' [...]

So far I've noticed how the whole organization is set up a bit like a wrestling match. So far in my Net career, I've been threatened of being tossed from it by several people, none of whom have the power to do so. My introduction to the Net was anything but friendly [...]" (Nick Panther, How I Got Into the Net, Jan 1990)

There exists the real concern that a lack of technical ability or constant "bending of the rules" to accommodate those systems who are unable to get fully compliant, would eventually lead to the collapse of the mail transfer structure. It is also feared that the lack of interest in the technology could also impede the progress and technological development that have played such a large part in the creation of FidoNet. However, strict inflexibility of technical policy would prevent many from joining FidoNet and would greatly restrict the access to the information resource. Technological elitism is also a very real problem with a purely technical orientation. As new technological developments arise and are put into place, access to the network and information source becomes further restricted to those who have access to the higher technology.

There is no clear cut solution to repairing the rifts that have grown within FidoNet. The disaccord between the two points of view in the Ottawa network escalated to such a degree as to cause a split of Net163. A physical division was created between "Technoids" and "Socialoids" as those with a technical bent migrated to the newly formed Net 243 (also in Ottawa). Such a division on a larger scale would mark the eminent collapse of FidoNet. Ongoing power struggles between the *C and *EC structures have already weakened its foundation and various attempts at reconciliation through policy revisions have failed to gain acceptance.

The growth and prosperity of an independent information network such as FidoNet is nothing short of phenomenal. That it has succeeded thus far, despite the innumerable technological changes and exponential growth since its inception, is a testimonial to the ability of individuals to come together to fulfill a common goal. Members of FidoNet today need to recognize the interdependence of both the communicative and technical functions of FidoNet; they need to rediscover the sense of cooperation upon which the network was originally built or it will eventually, yet inevitably, pull itself apart.


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pp10-21. Home top of page