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

        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

       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

      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

        "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

        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
affiliations 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

     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

     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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