by F. Thunus
We hear a lot today about telecommunication highways and what the future will be. What most of the people completely forget is that, for many people such as truly yours and maybe YOU, this is no future: this is NOW.
This article will introduce you to the only decent way of communicating during the 20th and probably 21st century - electronic communication.
Why the only decent way, I hear you saying? That's easy. It's easy (same use as a word processor), it's cheap (cheaper than sending a letter), it's faster than a regular letter. You can also make sure it reaches the other party (same as registered mail) and use methods that will ensure that only your correspondent will be able to read the message. Moreover this method saves a lot of paper and resources. Since it doesn't travel by car, train, airplane and so on, it is very environment-friendly. I am deeply convinced that in a matter of decades it will be standard, even if older means of communication remain. After all, even though we have telephones and faxes, we sometimes still use a plain letter or postcard, right?
This article will not bother you much with many technical details. I believe it is no more necessary for the front end user to know what's under the hood than for the average driver to know how a typical engine is built, or for you and me to understand deeply how when we turn the switch, the light comes on. What matters is that it works.
A) What do you need
A.1 A computer
Anything goes. You can get a decent system for cheap in most of the places in the world today. It doesn't matter what type of computer you have, as long as it can support a modem as peripheral.
A.2 A phone line
Here again, this shouldn't be too difficult.
A.3 A modem
A modem is just a device (either inside your pc or outside), that will send your data thru the phone line and receive whatever is coming. It should therefore be linked on the one hand to the computer and on the other to the phone line. There are many brand working at various speed. Prices vary wildly from one country to the other. The exact same modem is about 6 times more expensive in France than in Belgium, and about 1/5th cheaper in the USA. Minimum speed should be 2400bauds (-V22bis). Faster is better (at printing time it goes all the way up to 28.800 bauds (-V34). Most fast modem (9600 bauds (-V32) and up) can also send and receive faxes.
A.4 The ad hoc software
Dozens of free software are available for all platforms to enable you to communicate. There are of course also commercial ones. Contact the author for IBM compatible or Macintosh software.
A.5 A feed
I.e. somebody that will "hook' you to the network. See below how to find one.
B) How do I do it?
Now that I have all of the above (except maybe A.4 and A.5), how do you do it? Easy. First you install the modem and connect it to the phone line. With the modem, you normally receive some kind of primitive telecommunication software. If you don't have any and have an IBM compatible with Windows, you can always use as a last resort the terminal that comes with Windows. It is very bad, but that will do for a start. If you have A.4 and A-5, you can skip the following section and go straight to section C. For this example, we'll use fidonet, because it is free and easy, widespread and probably the first amateur network (dating back about 15 years).
B.1 : Locate a BBS
Chances are that there is somewhere near you a BBS (Bulletin Board Service) running. A BBS is a computer on-line which can be reached thru the phone line. You dial the number with your telecommunication software and you will see some menu appearing. You will most likely be asked to fill in a questionnaire before receiving access to the various services of the BBS. Those services are multiple: a message base, a file base, games, etc.. BBS are the dinosaurs of telecommunication, but they are still essential in the sense that it is so primitive that anybody can reach them. Just like sending a letter vs a fax... Don't worry, we won't stay here very long, because BBSes are costly and slow.
B-2 : Get
what you need
Once you have been granted access to the BBS, you are almost there. In the file section, locate some free email software. There are many floating around. FrontDoor 2.02 is free and very comprehensive, if a bit old. There is a newer shareware version. Binkley is also free. Mosaic also, etc.. Look up for Net, network, email, etc...in the descriptions. You can also simply ask the sysop (System Operator) of the BBS to help you. That's for A.4. For A-5, there are several possibilities: either the sysop is himself in a network and will help you join, or he can direct you to somebody who is, or he has somewhere the information. Some networks don't have any 'phone directory' (InterNet), others do (FidoNet, AlterNet, WalNet). These phone directory are usually ascii files with the name of the system, the name of the sysop, the phone number and various technical indications (speed supported, opening hours, etc). It is usually called the 'nodelist'. Since the complete nodelist of fidonet is very big, it is probable that your region as a sub-nodelist, with only the local nodes listed- Grab it (download it, ie transfer it to your computer using a file transfer protocol). Zmodem is highly recommended, if you don't have it then use Ymodem and if you don't have it use Xmodem(1k) or Xmodem. You should also get as many packing/unpacking (compressing) programs as you can, since in order to speed up mail transfer, it is usually compressed before sending.
We're almost there! You should now contact your feed (A.5) to establish a couple of things: what packer you are going to use between your system and his, what password you should establish (to protect your mail), and finally he should give you your network address. It can be very different depending on the network you are connected to. A fidonet address is something like this: 2:270/25.1 (2 means Europe, 270 is Luxembourg, 25 is CTServe (a system in Luxembourg) and 1 is...me! I'm the first subsystem of CTServe. A compuserve address is something like 123456,78912. An internet address is Francois@fido.lu (most likely longer: email@example.com), etc etc.
Now that you have all this information, you can setup your software (A.4). This information will be asked by the software before you can properly install it, which is why we proceed in this order.
That's it. Once the software is installed, read the doc and off you go. The software consist usually of various parts (which may be integrated into one): a word processor (mail editor), where you write your mail. There are 2 type of mail: personnel mail (also called netmail or matrix mail) and echomail (conference mail). The main difference between the 2 is that personnel mail is for you and the other party only, whereas echomail (as the name suggest), is broadcasted all over the network to all people connected to the conference you are writing in. Conferences are forums where you write about a given topic in a given language. You can subscribe to a conference very much like you subscribe to a magazine and will get everything written there. There are conferences about any topic you can dream of, in any language. That is also a good opportunity to practice your language skills by the way, or to stay in touch with folks at home if you live abroad.
There is also a mailer. That part of the software calls the other computer (using the information contained in the nodelist), exchange the password, sends your outgoing mail and picks up any waiting mail for you, then disconnects. It then passes on the mail to the tosser which will unpack the mail bundle and toss it into your message base. (the tosser also packs your outgoing mail and makes it ready for the mailer to send).
This is how this happen for me: when I get up I start the computer and ask it to pick up the mail. Then I go fix some breakfast. When I come back, the computer has fetched the mail and started my mail editor. I read the mail, write answers and then leave to work. The next morning, when I repeat the operation, the outgoing mail will be sent as the incoming is picked up. If it's urgent, I can also ask the computer to send it straight away. I usually don't do it, because the whole idea is to make as few calls as possible. By the way, the structure of the network works in such a way that it should always be a LOCAL call, and the fact that you are sending mail to the other side of the world is irrelevant. This is how you can stay in touch with people all over the world for the price of a single local call.
You can reach me at:
on the internet at francois@fido-lu or
on fidonet as 2:270/25.1 or
on walnet as 130:5000/1.1
SnaiI mail : c/o Club de Telematique
4 rue Neyen