| Information and Computer Technology Fact Sheets |
What is it?
Fidonet is just one form of electronic communications that provides a means to bridge time and distance to facilitate interpersonal communication. The simplest and least expensive type of computer-based messaging is a bulletin board system. In its basic form, the idea of a bulletin board is that any member of the system can post a message in a public area. Any other member of the system can browse through the bulletin board reading items of interest. Fidonet-compatible systems offer three main services: electronic mail (one to one communication), conference mail (many to many), and file transfers. Fidonet file transfers can handle both text and binary files. When these services are integrated with an interactive electronic bulletin board system such as RemoteAccess(tm), they can be accessed by people using only a modem and ordinary dialer software. Simple bulletin board services and "Fido" networks are gaining in popularity around the world because of their low cost and ease of use.
What is Fidonet Technology?
Fidonet is known as the "people's network. In 1983, Tom Jennings, a computer programmer, began working on bulletin board software that would provide a link between the east and west coasts of the United States using homegrown bulletin boards. His scheme was loosely patterned after the amateur ham radio operators' network. A feature of the Fido software is that individual bulletin board operators can agree to a regular automated exchange of messages between their systems. This results in a web of linked Fido bulletin boards spanning countries and continents. This is collectively known as Fidonet. From its first appearance in 1984, use of Fidonet technology by the public has grown dramatically. Participation in the worldwide public Fidonet network alone now includes over 15,000 systems on six continents. Fidonet technology is gaining growing acceptance as an attractive computer networking standard for educational, government, and business networks.
Fidonet technology encourages the creation of regional E-mail systems with a small host computer based in a developing country. Instead of using packet-switching, these independent systems establish gateways with larger, international electronic mail systems using high speed modems. At regular intervals, the independent systems dial into the larger systems to swap incoming and outgoing messages. In this way, members are able to communicate with users on other systems. This approach keeps down the cost of international calls without requiring sophisticated computer equipment.
What are its advantages?
Because Fidonet technology emerged in an environment where individuals operated each system independently and covered their own costs for phone calls and equipment, it had to be very flexible, decentralized, and designed to operate inexpensively with standard modems and microcomputers connected over ordinary phone lines. The "handshaking" and file transfer protocols built into all Fidonet-compatible software incorporate compression, error correction, and error recovery capabilities that squeeze as much data as possible into the shortest transmission time that the hardware will allow.
While the expansion of more advanced computer networking technologies is often constrained
by prohibitively high costs and inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, Fidonet technology is not. It thus proves to be invaluable for people in countries where international dialing costs are high and line quality is often poor.
Fidonet-compatible systems, relative to other electronic mail and computer conferencing systems, are cheap and easy to install. They do not require powerful computer hardware and do not use packet switching and are thus attractive in countries that do not have highly developed computer and communication facilities. Gateways are now being developed from major international systems, such as Internet, to Fidonet nodes. The trend will be for the larger systems to offer comprehensive services, such as user directories and international database access, while the smaller, less formal systems will offer a forum for discussion among scientists and engineers.
What are its disadvantages?
Fidonet is a communications technology that many consider to be less advanced and, therefore, less useful than other technologies. It does not offer all of the sophistication that other, more costly systems do. Fidonet technology has a limit to expandability, insofar as it will always remain a store-and-forward, modem-based network. It lacks the capability for online information retrieval, database searches, remote-login, and remote-execution that other systems offer.
What do I need to use it?
Basically, all electronic communication networks require the same minimal configuration. For Fidonet, the user needs a computer with a serial communication port, a modem, a communications software package and a phone line. With this set-up and some training, a user can participate in a variety of networking activities. The system needs the use of data access links (which may be a simple, ordinary telephone or an international packet-switched data network), a computer to act as "host" for the discussion, and a terminal device.
Where is it working in Africa?
Fidonet technology has been tested and/or installed in many African countries, including Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Here are some examples of these networks:
MANGO is a bulletin board service in Harare, Zimbabwe, operated by a collective of NGOs. It was recently agreed that the system be made available to the NGO community as a whole and a fee structure has been developed.
The NGONET Africa project is based out of Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) in Nairobi where a Fido bulletin board system has been set up to provide a conduit for electronic mail traffic in the region and to NGOs worldwide. This is done using a high-speed modem to make daily calls to the GreenNet Fido gateway in London.
HORNET is a free bulletin board operated by PADIS that serves as a source of news, reports, and discussion on issues related to the Horn of Africa.
Where can I get more information?
For information about Fidonet and other communication technologies, contact:
Dr. Nancy Hafkin, Officer-in-Charge, Pan African Development Information System, UN Economic Commission for Africa, PO Box, 3001, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tel: +251-1-51-11- 67; Fax: +251-1-51-44-16; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For examples of how Fidonet has been used in Africa, see Bridge Builders: African Experiences with Information and Communication Technology. (available on this cd-rom)