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May 14, 1995

Dishing out the data
to keep cyberspace free

By Timothy C. Barmann

If information is money, Sheila Lennon and Bill Whitehouse ought to be rich.

Every day, more than 12 million bytes of computer data stream into their East Side house from a three-foot satellite dish perched on its roof.

The Providence couple are the founders of Radio Free Echomail, a loose coalition of about 50 computer bulletin-board operators throughout New England and as far away as Arizona.

Formed Jan. 1, 1994, RFE shares the electronic mail and public-domain computer programs transmitted to Lennon and Whitehouse's satellite dish.

The dish collects the data that are fed into a small personal computer cobbled together from donated parts, which serves as the group's hub. The data are then passed to other members in about a dozen states by modem and telephone line. Where necessary, the information travels from bulletin board to bulletin board through an elaborate distribution system designed to avoid long-distance calls.

Worldwide hobby

The electronic mail, text files and programs are the lifeblood of a global amateur network called "Fidonet" (as in the dog's name). Formed in 1984, Fidonet is made up of nearly 35,000 bulletin-board operators around the world, most of whom are computer hobbyists, Whitehouse said.

RFE's Fidonet transmission originates in Newport, Tenn., and is beamed to a satellite orbiting in space, then back to satellite receiving dishes all around North America. Other bulletin boards in Rhode Island also receive the Fidonet signal; what's different about the Radio Free Echomail group is that its members don't get any money for their trouble - they pool their skills, time and storage capacities to accomplish what would require a large investment on the part of any one of them.

Instead of making a profit or breaking even by reselling the data to other bulletin boards, Lennon and Whitehouse give it away for free. Any bulletin board can join Radio Free Echomail by pledging to pass the Fidonet files and messages free to their own callers and to other computer bulletin boards. "How are you going to charge for someone's ideas?" he says, referring to the thousands of messages distributed daily by Radio Free Echomail.

In a mission statement posted on their own bulletin board, "Art of the Possible," Whitehouse and Lennon describe it this way: "Access to the electronic town square is a human right."

And they're putting their money where their ideals are. Lennon, a Journal-Bulletin section editor, and Whitehouse, a freelance writer now devoting full time to RFE, paid $659 for the satellite dish system and pay a $40 monthly fee for the service - all out of their own pocket.

Free for all

But Whitehouse said they're not the only ones who contribute to Radio Free Echomail's success. It's a cooperative effort, he said, where the members give of their own resources.

Several boards, for example, act as electronic libraries by storing classic literature texts, operating-system software or missing children photos distributed via Fidonet. Wayne Lisi of Warwick plays a major role in distributing the e-mail and software to other Radio Free Echomail members, and sending RFE's replies back to Fidonet.

The concept behind Radio Free Echomail is not unique. Whitehouse said that a number of other bulletin boards in other states also distribute Fidonet files for free.

Anyone with a computer and a modem can download Radio Free Echomail files and participate in Fidonet's more than 700 discussion topics by connecting to one of the Rhode Island member bulletin boards. (See chart.)

The couple say part of their mission is to curb what they see as a trend - the commercialization of on-line communication.

"This project's loftiest goal," they write, "is to create a beachhead for free public access before a growing telecommunications industry sells our hobby out from under us."

Where's your home page?

A future Cybertalk column will feature World Wide Web home pages by residents of Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. To be considered for the article, please e-mail your home page address to tim@cybertalk.com


Tuesday - The Providence chapter of the Boston Computer Society will discuss the Internet at its monthly meeting, at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick, in the East Conference Room at 7 p.m. General question and answer session begins at 6:30 p.m. Speakers from Intelecom Data Systems and the Ocean State Free-Net will give demonstrations. Cost: free. For more information, contact the Rhode Island coordinator, Louis Stein, at 739-2810 or by e-mail at louisstein@aol.com

May 24 - The Ocean State Internet Society will meet at the Weaver Public Library on Grove St. in East Providence at 7 p.m. Representatives from brainiac Services, an Internet access provider, will speak. A question and answer session begins at 6:30. The meeting is free. For more information, call OSIS at 435-8083, or e-mail osis@osfn.rhilinet.gov

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Comments about this column or suggestions for future topics can be sent to him via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com