From the Archives: When FidoNet Meets the Internet (1994)

August 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the Philippine online world. In celebrating this momentous occasion, I’ve managed to dig up this old article I wrote for the April 1994 issue of PC Digest from the Wayback Machine. I hope that by reposting this on WordPress, we can preserve it for another decade, or at least until Matt Mullenweg’s servers are wiped off the face of the earth.

This article (“When Fidonet Meets the Internet“) documented some old pre-Internet technology, the world of Fidonet Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). It was through this homebrew technology that the first widespread electronic networks were born (starting August 1986), bringing forth electronic mail, file downloads, message threads, and a crude form of social networking – long before most Filipinos could text or send a basic e-mail (the Internet didn’t appear in the Philipines until 1994, and even then was only used in universities).

So let’s take a trip via the Wayback Machine back to the 90s and the dawn of Philippine cyberspace as we know it:

——–

Tom Jennings, creator of FidoNet

FIDONET: THE BIGGEST LITTLE NETWORK

Fidonet has come a long way since 1984, when a San Francisco-based programmer and communications buff named Tom Jennings put together a BBS program and called it “Fido”, after his homebrew computer system, put together from so many odd components that a friend had once called it a real “mongrel”. What set Jenning’s oddly named program from the rest was a built-in communications protocol called Fidonet that allowed BBSes to communicate and transfer messages with each other over ordinary phone lines just like expensive systems that used dedicated leased lines. It wasn’t long before networks of Fidonet BBSes began to sprout up all over the U.S., and the phenomenon has spread throughout the world.

Ten years later, there are over 22,000 bulletin board systems worldwide that count themselves as part of the International Fidonet Association, a rather amorphous group of system operators and users with one important thing in common: the urge to communicate with each other. The Fidonet networking protocol has been incorporated in BBS software of all types as a de facto BBS standard, probably second only to the Unix world’s UUCP and TCP/IP in ubiquity. There are nodes in every corner of the globe, from the island of Aruba in South America; to Kiev, Ukraine and St. Petersburg, Russia; to a thriving Fidonet scene in the Republic of South Africa. At an estimated 100 users per system, experts put the Fidonet user population at a minimum of 2.2 million modem-wielding individuals.

In the Philippines, BBS networks using the Fidonet protocol have been around since at least 1986, but it wasn’t until around 1991 that the local network touched base with the international Fidonet community. Through the linkup, it became possible for a local BBS user to dial up a local BBS and send and receive messages from overseas. This feature came at a cost, however, which was a result of IDD phone charges incurred to dial up Fidonet gateways abroad. The solution was to implement a subscription scheme for users who wanted the international connectivity, which would build up a fund to pay for the IDD calls and maintain the link. It was also decided to keep the costs as affordable as possible, particularly since the BBS hobbyists were largely made up of students and young professionals. Local messages remained free, however.

The local Fidonet Philippines network now Baguio, Metro Manila, Cebu, and Bacolod, with more users coming aboard every time.

FIDONET, MEET THE INTERNET

Perhaps the biggest name in the electronic mail community today is the Internet, now alternatively known in various circles as “The ‘Net”, the “Information Superhighway”, and all the stuff that hype is made of. But despite all the media hype, the Internet truly deserves its newfound formidable reputation. The mother of all networks, it is actually composed of networks of networks, around 2 million of them at the last estimate. In terms of users, the estimates range from 15 to 20 million, depending on who’s doing the counting. Undoubtedly, Fidonet’s a mere babe compared to *this* mother.

But thankfully, the trend among networks today is openness and interconnectivity, and Fidonet is no exception. In much the same way that formerly proprietary networks like Compuserve, MCI Mail, AT&T Mail, Prodigy and the like have forged links to communicate with the Internet, the Fidonet community has developed systems that allow Fidonet users to send and receive e-mail with the big “I”.

Though it’s only now that the Internet has been receiving tremendous publicity in the world’s mainstream press, Fidonet’s links with the Internet have been around for some time. According to Carlos Legaspi, Fidonet Regional Coordinator (RC) for the Philippines, Filipino Fidonet users have been able to send mail to the Internet as early as 1991. Unfortunately, in the early days, mail delivery times were nothing to shout about. It would sometimes take a week for mail to arrive at its destination… when it arrived at all. Sometimes, mail would disappear into a mysterious black hole, never to be seen again.

These days, Fidonet can boast of a faster and more reliable delivery schedule for its Internet-bound messages. Through improvements in message routing, it takes an average of two days for e-mail to travel from a local Fidonet BBS to its destination on the Internet, which can physically be located anywhere in the world. On a very good day, the message can arrive there overnight.

Internet gurus may scoff at these delivery times, since on a host directly connected to the Internet, e-mail is sent out at blinding speeds, often arriving at its destination anywhere in the world in a few minutes. But almost everyone will admit that a two-day delivery time is still better than the alternative, the aptly named “snail mail”, also known as mail sent through the postal system, that takes anything from a week to a month to send international mail to its destination.

HOW IT WORKS: NETMAIL AND UUCP GATEWAYS

So how does it all work? How does a Fidonet BBS message entered in Quezon City end up in a site in Stockholm, Sweden?

In order to understand the process, let’s take a look at the Fidonet addressing scheme.

Fidonet is composed of a network of BBSes, each with it’s own unique address. Internationally, Fidonet classifies these systems according to zones, networks and nodes. Zones are geographical locations. Zone 1 is North America, 2 is Europe and Russia, 3 is Australia and New Zealand, and so forth. Asia belongs to zone 6.

Zones are composed of networks, or “nets”. In the Philippines, Fidonet is composed of three networks: One for Northern Metro Manila (net 751), another for Southern Metro Manila, one for Southern Metro Manila (net 750), and one for Cebu City (net 754). Sad to say, BBSing in the Philippines is concentrated only in these major metropolitan areas.

Each network has a number of Fidonet BBSes that are “nodes” of the network, each of which are assigned a node number. For example, take a BBS like Inner Sanctum, operated by Ronald Go and Albert Godinez. This operates out of the Greenhills, San Juan area and is considered part of net 751.

The syntax for a Fidonet node address is zone:net/node. In Inner Sanctum’s case, it is assigned an address of 6:751/399.

This translates to:

Zone 6: Asia

Net 751: Northern Manila Net

Node 399: Inner Sanctum

At last count, there are around 35 Fidonet nodes in the Philippines. The user base has been estimated to be around 1,500 users, though no one knows for sure since no actual surveys have been undertaken. To most of these users, the concept of Fidonet addresses is irrelevant since they participate in “echomail” message areas that echo a message to all nodes in the network automatically.

But addresses become important for Netmail, which is the Fidonet term for a message addressed directly to a user on another BBS.

For example, assuming I want to send a message to my friend Michelle on a popular BBS called Majesty while I am a user on another BBS, I would go to a special message area called Netmail and address the message like so:

To: Michelle Dy

Address : 6:751/2

In this case, 6:751/2 is Majesty BBS’s address.

Now you might be wondering, why not just login to the Majesty BBS directly and leave a message for Michelle there? Of course this is always possible, since it’s just a local call. But Netmail becomes useful when sending a message to a distant site, like a BBS in Cebu, for example. With Netmail, there’s no need to dial up Cebu, only a local BBS (if you’re in Manila). Just compose a Netmail message and address it to the Fidonet node in Cebu frequented by the addressee. The message is then routed through the network’s Manila-Cebu gateway until it arrives at its destination, safe and sound. Fidonet Philippines routes messages several times a day, so a message from Manila to Cebu typically gets to its destination within the day.

This becomes even better if you have access to international Netmail that allows you to send e-mail messages to Fidonet BBSers around the world. It will take longer to reach its destination since the message is routed from one gateway node and hub to another, but the message does reach there, albeit a little weatherbeaten perhaps.

However, not everyone with e-mail is on Fidonet. As we’ve seen, the immense Internet dwarfs Fidonet considerably. The person with the e-mail address that you wish to write to will most likely have an Internet e-mail account rather than a Fidonet address. But thanks to the magic of Netmail, Fidonet users can use the their network to route e-mail to the Internet.

The key to this development are special sites on Fidonet that are known as UUCP gateways. Software has been devised to allow Fidonet messages to pass through a system configured as a gateway into the Internet, using the standard UUCP-g protocol used for years by the Unix community. These gateways do nothing all day but receive messages routed to them from far flung locations on Fidonet, converts them to Internet format, and passes them to the Internet where they zip about on their merry way to their final destination. The UUCP gateways also receive messages from the Internet addressed to Fidonet users. In this mode, it does the reverse and converts Internet messages to Fidonet format, routing them to the proper Fidonet addresses.

For Zone 6 (Asia), the UUCP gateway authorized to process Netmail messages coming from Asia into Internet e-mail is actually found in the U.S…. in Portland, Oregon to be exact, the home of the Blazers and the infamous Tonya Harding. This is a system known as “Bink of An Eye” run by a sysop named Randy Bush. Bush’s address is 1:105/42. Thus to send Fidonet Netmail from the Philippines to the Internet, we actually address it first to 1:105/42, the UUCP gateway.

Fidonet messages from the Philippines don’t go directly to Portland. One reason why Fidonet e-mail costs so low is that messages are routed to distant destinations rather than directly. The costs are thus borne by the different nodes along the way. In the case of an Internet-bound message from a local Fidonet BBS, the messages actually travel a route that takes them from Manila to Taiwan to the USA until they get to Portland, Oregon. This routing procedure takes about 1 to 2 days. But once the message finally hits the UUCP gateway, it only takes 30 mins or less to arrive at any Internet address in the world.

ADDRESSING AN INTERNET MESSAGE ONLINE

The first step in the process is to become a subscriber of Fidonet Philippines, which gives you the authorization to send international Netmail messages. Having done this, you can then make arrangements with the system operator of your most convenient Fidonet system to gain access to the Netmail message area.

The basic idea is to send a Netmail message to the UUCP gateway in Portland at 1:105/42. The first line of your message will also contain the Internet address of the message’s ultimate destination, which the gateway inserts in the resulting Internet message to speed it on its merry way through the Net.

For example, let’s say you have a dear sister studying at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Her e-mail address is sistah@stanford.edu, and you want to write her a letter to tell her that you’ve passed the board exams and are well on your way towards becoming a licensed palm reader.

Your Netmail message should be addressed as follows:

To: UUCP

Address: 1:105/42

Subj: Hello There!

On the very first line of the message, enter the Internet e-mail address like so:

To: sistah@stanford.edu

The second line of the message should be blank. On the third line, you can proceed with your message. This is the basic procedure for addressing the Netmail message on-line. Saving the message queues the message for its long journey through cyberspace.

USING AN OFF-LINE MAIL READER

The vast majority of users who enter messages on BBSes no longer write messages (or read them for that matter) on line. Instead, they make of software today known as an “OMR” or Offline Mail Reader. These allow you to download mail as compressed message packets and read them while off-line from the BBS, at your leisure without the time pressure imposed by a BBS’s connect time limitations. You can compose messages off-line as well, using the text editor of your choice. Your messages are later uploaded to the BBS.

Popular OMR programs in use among the local BBS community include Blue Wave, Silly Little Mail Reader (SLMR), Off-Line Express (OLX), Wave Rider (a Windows OMR) and the locally-developed McOMR. There are two major message packet formats supported by local BBSes, and these are QWK and BlueWave (or BW).

Addressing Netmail messages using Blue Wave packets is rather straightforward because this OMR allows you to enter an address right after the “To:” prompt, similar to addressing a Netmail message online. For Blue Wave message packets, the procedure is as follows:

1.   Make sure the Netmail area is tagged.

2.   Go to the Netmail area and address the message like so:

To: UUCP

Address: 1:105/42

Subj: Hi There!

3.   As in the online procedure, enter the Internet e-mail address

on the very first line of the message section.

To: sistah@stanford.edu

4.   Leave a blank line immediately afterward, and then proceed with your message.

Some users run programs known as “points” such as Professional Point (PPOINT) or Frontdoor that are configured to dial up BBS systems and do mail transfers automatically, without any manual intervention. Like OMRs, messages are also read and entered off- line.

Note that if you’re using a Point program the Internet-bound netmail address is basically addressed the same way as a Blue Wave message.

With a QWK reader like SLMR, OLX, or McOMR, there is an additional procedure because this message packet format does not have a separate field for entering the node address. Thus the message should be addressed as follows:

To: UUCP

Subj: Hi There!

===========================================

To: 1:105/42

To: sistah@stanford.edu

As the example shows, the first line of the message should contain the address of the UUCP gateway, which is 1:105/42. The second line of the message now contains the Internet address. A blank line follows immediately. On the fourth line, you can commence to type in your message.

RECEIVING MAIL FROM THE INTERNET

Now of course, everyone enjoys receiving mail as well. All Fidonet users can receive e-mail from the Internet. This means that every Fidonet user automatically has an e-mail address that anyone, anywhere on the Internet can address mail to. This is done by converting the Fidonet address into the syntax of Internet e-mail.

A Fidonet user’s address translated to Internet e-mail syntax takes the following form:

firstname.lastname@f.n.z.fidonet.org

This becomes more meaningful with an actual example. Let’s take my account at the Twilight Zone BBS for example. I am logged in as Jim Ayson and Twilight Zone’s address is 6:750/2. As far as Fidonet is concerned, my address is thus Jim Ayson @ 6:750/2. Converted to Internet e-mail conventions, my address becomes:

jim.ayson@f2.n750.z6.fidonet.org

Anyone on the Internet can send me e-mail at this address, and as long as I log into Twilight Zone, I’ll be able to receive the message. Incoming messages from the Internet are received in the Netmail area.

Now, since I run a point program as well, I can also receive e-mail through my point address, which is 6:750/200.300 (note the additional number at the end). Using Internet e-mail conventions, the address is interpreted as:

firstname.lastname@p.f.n.z.fidonet.org

or: jim.ayson@p300.f2.n750.z6.fidonet.org

Note that in either situation, case is insignificant. You can also spell out the address in all caps, but most people find it easier to read in lower case.

SOME CAVEATS: WHAT’S ALLOWED, WHAT’S NOT

In general, Fidonet Philippines’ e-mail service is good enough for personal, non-priority mail, such as the letter to the imaginary sister at Stanford used in our example. The two-day travelling time is good enough, compared to “snail mail” at least. The lack of volume charges or restrictions is also a plus. In theory you will be able to send or receive as much mail as you want while a active subscriber.

And if the mail accidentally loses its way, which might happen if one of the BBS links along the way goes down (this is still a hobbyist’s network after all and system fault tolerance is mainly wishful thinking), it shouldn’t be the end of the world for you.

However, if you need to use e-mail for business or life-and-death situations requiring urgent mail, you may still be better off with a commercial e-mail provider. As in life, you get what you pay for.

The other point to consider is that Fidonet Philippines as a policy imposes restrictions on some e-mail applications. The most notable example is a ban on subscribing to the many mailing lists or listservers available through the Internet. This was imposed to eliminate the possibility of megabytes of incoming Internet messages suddenly coming down the pike, as is the case with some heavy volume mailing lists.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Despite its limitations, Fidonet’s e-mail service is still one of the cheapest and most accessible around. The cost is a pittance compared to the commercial competition. And in most cases, the network is pretty reliable. Fidonet remains to many, the Internet e-mail provider for the everyman.

It might be interesting to look at Fidonet’s service in relation to the DOST-initiated PhilNet project for linking up key universities all over the Philippines directly to the Internet. This project will bring the full range of Internet services to the Philippines at last, which consist of far more than just e-mail. As of this writing, Philnet is about to enter a final phase before becoming fully operational.

One possibility brewing in the future for Fidonet is to establish a local UUCP gateway to eliminate the long circuitous path that messages have to take before entering the Internet. Perhaps a tie up with a local commercial Internet provider or even Philnet would be in the cards.

For the rest of us, such as the family down the street who wishes to keep electronically connected to their son or daughter studying abroad, or a favorite uncle in Vancouver with a Compuserve account, Fidonet offers an interesting and inexpensive alternative to commercial e-mail services. Just put a computer, modem, and phone line in place, and the world can be at your reach.

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