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Joining USENET

Sydney Weinstein

If you follow my column in The C Users Journal, "On the Networks," you have seen there is a vast amount of useful software available via USENET. In addition, exchanging electronic mail is an inexpensive and reliable method of staying in touch with a large number of contacts. As an added bonus, there are several mailing lists just for Systems Administrators. Since you are administering a UNIX system, you have the software needed (UUCP) to connect to USENET. So, how do you join?

USENET is just a cooperative network of connected computers. UUCP is one common connection method. To connect to USENET via UUCP, all you need to do is find a site that is already a member of USENET and is willing to provide you with a connection. What they do is allow you to call their system, and/or have their system call your system, via UUCP to exchange electronic mail and perhaps USENET Network News.

The problem is finding a site that is already a member of USENET and is not overburdened with other connections. The solution to this problem is either perseverance or money.


In the beginning, USENET was a purely volunteer, cooperative network. Each site agreed to carry the traffic of its neighbors. As the net expanded, this got to be overwhelming. However, at the "leaves" (sites near the end of the tree that don't have many other connections), there still can be found sites that are willing to provide a connection for free. How free that really is depends on several factors. The site itself may not charge you anything, but you might have to pay a phone company toll call charge to reach it.

The first place to look is via the published maps of existing UUCP sites. Most UUCP sites register their connections with the UUCP Mapping Project, which then publishes the maps in the USENET news group comp.mail.maps. This allows the pathalias program to be used to automatically compute the path from your site to any other site, and for other sites to figure the path from their site to your site. This routing information is used by the electronic mail system on USENET sites. Map entries contain a lot of information beyond just the site connections. In Listing 1 is a copy of the map information for my system, dsinc. The map entry contains two sections. The first is comment information in a special format. These comments contain all the information about the site for human use. The second part is the connection information, which is in the format for pathalias to use. Of particular interest are two fields: #C, the contact person for the site, and #T, their telephone number.

If you acquire the map file(s) for your state, you can search them for sites that are local phone calls from your site. Then perhaps one of those site administrators will be willing to provide a connection for your site. If you are only looking for electronic mail, then any site will work. If, however, you also want USENET Network News, then only call those sites with a #U entry. Those sites exchange USENET Network news, and the names listed on those lines are the sites with which they exchange news.

If you are not connected to USENET, it might seem difficult to obtain the map entry. UUNET Communication Services comes to the rescue on this front. They provide a pay-per-call access to their storehouse of archived files via a 1-900 number. They keep the current map files as published in comp.mail.maps in their archives. Using UUCP, at $.50/minute, you can retrieve the map file(s) for your state and start calling those site contacts. The map files are broken down by state, and reside in the ~/uumap directory. For the US files the names are u.usa.ST.n, where ST is the two-letter postal abbreviation for the state and n is a number starting at 1 and running upwards by 1. Each map file is, at most, approximately 50Kb. Listing 2 gives a sample L.sys/Systems file entry for connecting to UUNET via the 1-900 number. The UUCP command:

uucp 'uunet:~/uumap/*' ~

will transfer all of the Pennsylvania map files from UUNET to the uucppublic directory of your system.


If you cannot find a site willing to provide a connection for free, or if you want faster service or a larger USENET Network News feed than other sites are willing to provide, consider one of the many services that sell UUCP services for a fee.

The largest of these is UUNET Communications Services, mentioned earlier. This service runs a large data center in Virginia and provides around-the-clock connections, access to their large archive of files, and as large a news feed as you are willing to pay for. UUNET charges can range from about $25/month for a very lightly used electronic mail connection to several hundred dollars a month for a large USENET feed. They charge by the hour, with the lowest hourly charge for calling Virginia directly, a slightly higher charge for access via a packet switched network (but that gives you a local call), and higher still if you use their 800 number (but this might still be cheaper than calling them on your own account). Transmission rates can vary, but customers report that 600-800cps using Telebit PEP modems is typical. UUNET can be reached at (703) 204-8000.

A smaller national vendor, Performance Systems International, Inc. of Troy, New York, runs their own packet switched network and offers competitive rates, but a limited number of cities with local phone numbers. They offer a flat rate per month for a UUCP connection, with the restriction that your site does not feed any other sites (for a somewhat higher fee, they will waive that restriction). Performance Systems International can be reached at (518) 283-8860.

A number of small companies offer connections regionally. Datacomp Systems, Inc. is one of those, and we can be reached at (215) 947-9900. If you are in the western part of the US, another regional company is Portal Communications Company (408) 973-9111.

Spread the Word

Once connected, it is wise to register your system with the UUCP Mapping Project. This helps to ensure that mail will reach your site and also reserves your site's UUCP name to prevent conflicts. Registration does impose at least one constraint, however: the UUCP system name you choose for your site must also be unique within the maps, and, as many have lamented, all the good ones are taken.

To register your site, you send a mail message to rutgers!uucpmap (or containing information in the format shown in Listing 1. The lines should appear in the order shown in the listing, but you do not need to include lines that do not apply.

The first line, #N, is the name of your site. If you do not have a registered domain name with the NIC, just include the UUCP name of your site on this line. If you do have a registered domain name with the NIC, list the FQDN of the Internet site that is acting as your MX forwarder on the #F line. On the #S line list the type of system and operating system software you are running.

The #O through #P lines identify yourself/company. The #O line is the Organization (or Owner) of the system. #C is the contact person(s) name(s). #E is the electronic mail address for the person listed in #C and is usually just site!postmaster. #T is the telephone number of the contact person. Note the format. Telephone numbers are listed as a "+" followed by the country code, and then the number (the country code for North America is 1). The postal address makes up the #P line.

The #L line is special and is used by automatic mapping software to produce maps showing the locations of USENET sites. It contains the latitude and longitude of your site in hours, minutes, seconds format. If you do not know the values for the location of your site, you can list the values for a nearby city and place the word "(city)" after the values.

Any remarks are listed on the #R lines. Try to keep them short as the maps are distributed and stored on a large number of systems. All USENET Network News feeds are listed on the #U lines. The last line, the #W line, is the person who filed the entry and the date of the entry.

What follows is connection information for pathalias. First any aliases for your site are listed as:

site= alias

Then the other sites your site communicates with via UUCP are listed, along with their connection frequency. Valid frequencies are in Listing 3 along with their relative weightings. These frequencies are used to build the paths used by the routing software.

In Summary

There is a lot out there on USENET. If you administer a UNIX system it will be worth the trouble to find a site and connect up. Many sites even think it's worth paying for. I am looking forward to meeting you, "On the Networks."

About the Author

Sydney S. Weinstein, CDP, CCP is a consultant, columnist, lecturer, author, professor, and President of Datacomp Systems, Inc., a consulting and contract programming firm specializing in databases, data presentation and windowing, transaction processing, networking, testing and test suites, and device management for UNIX and MS-DOS. He can be contacted care of Datacomp Systems, Inc., 3837 Byron Road, Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006-2320 or via electronic mail on the Internet/USENET mailbox syd@DSI.COM (dsinc!syd> for those who cannot do Internet addressing).