Fidonet was/is the largest amateur (as in not commercially or government funded) network in the world. It was created by TomJennings in the early eighties to network various BulletinBoardSystems together over simple modem-to-modem connections on the PlainOldTelephoneService?.
At first, it was only system-to-system mail (known as netmail, aka matrix mail), but from that grew echomail. Echomail was essentially netmail with extra stuff and it was the Fidonet equivalent of UseNet.
Fidonet was a hierarchical network organized as:
Zones, regions and networks each had a coordinator elected by the coordinators below. An International Coordinator was elected by the Zone Coordinators (ZCs). Network coordinators (NCs) were elected by their constituent nodes. Nodes were ran by SysOps of BulletinBoardSystems. Points were members of BBSs that convinced the SysOp to give them their own network address. Points had no voting power.
Zones mapped geographically onto continents. Networks onto cities (or provinces in the case of Saskatchewan), or (telephone) area codes to be more accurate. Regions grouped together networks for convenience of management.
Hubs were just traffic routers in a network. For instance, in Saskatchewan to belay long distance charges, there would be hubs dispersed throughout the province.
The system worked on a cost-distribution philosophy. Since everyone long distance and connection charges were the name of the game (being modem based), and there was only a single connect upstream, the lower nodes paid for the upper nodes costs (equally and fairly). In my network, I'd send a cheque in once a year on average to buy credit from my NC (who was also my NEC--network echomail coordinator).
Also, power was distributed likewise. Many rules were written to protect the rights of the SysOps who paid. For instance, FidoNet's echomail system had a moderation rule to prevent commercial interests and idiots from wasting money. Each echo must have a moderator associated with it. The moderator had absolute rights and responsibility for that echo including the ability to kick users out. Failure for a SysOp to disable that user resulted in his or her node being cut off the network and so on up the chain.
Some people thought this "PoliceForce" mentality was bad, so they created AlterNet? (Zone 7). That was the second largest amateur network in the world, but significantly smaller than Fidonet. In general, the moderation kept things civil. "Family atmosphere" was the key. However, people disagreed. net.politics were rampant, especially in FidoNews?, the weekly newsletter.
Then came PlanetConnect? that broke the geographical network topology. And the InterNet. And many other things. The nodelist (the matrix address to phone number lookup table) begin to dwindle from a peak of around 40000. I believe it is much less than half that now.
That's too bad. Fidonet was great. It was technically well designed too. Built by the people who used it because they loved it. It gleamed of grassroots.
I miss my node. -- SunirShah
P.S. I just checked. As of 23 July 2000, GAMEDEV--The Game Development Echo, the echo I took a year to build, still exists (at least in Zone 1--North America). Cool!
See also http://www.fidonet.org
FidonetPolicyFour (cached here for posterity)