Happy 20th to BC's Basicly BBC

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Computer Player, April 1997

Basicly BBS, a free service run by Bob and Sharon Satti celebrated twenty years of continuous operation on January 10th.

Bob, a programmer specializing in networking software, became interested in what was then called Remote or Host Systems in the mid 1970s. He found another hobbyist in Toronto with similar interests-after a lot of experimentation, they reached a milestone of sorts. According to Bob, "One day he typed an 'M' and I received an "H", and we each celebrated this success by going out for dinner". After getting the process a little more reliable, he went on-line on January 10th, 1977. "The phone company couldn't understand why I would want a second line in my house!"

Over 195,000 phone calls later, Basicly consists of a network of 24 IBM-compatibles, mostly in a spare bedroom in the Satti's home in Surrey, (outside Vancouver BC), a mix of 286, 386, and 486 computers, with 1730 active users. Over 9 gigabytes of files are available across the collection of hard drives, along with a wide range of message bases. The system doesn't support on-line gaming, or libraries of graphics (often a euphemism for  pornography); the Sattis say that these are widely available elsewhere, and prefer to keep their phone lines available for more serious users.

The Sattis have provided Basicly as a free service despite the ongoing costs of maintaining seven phone lines and two dozen computers-they estimate that it adds $50-60 per month to their hydro bills (the computer room requires air conditioning year-round), and about $300 to each phone bill. They see themselves providing a valuable community service, citing, among other benefits, message groups focusing on alcoholism and abuse survivors.

Keeping the service up and running takes more than money-on average, it takes anywhere from two to four hours a day to keep Basicly going. Their advice to would-be system operators ('sysops')-and equally valid to others, I believe, is to place a computer in the living room, where it can become part of the family life, rather than an isolated hobby. While the bulk of Basicly is housed on 20 computers upstairs, the Sattis have another four clustered around the family TV, letting them control the BBS or work on other computer-oriented tasks. As a result, Sharon vehemently denies being "a computer widow".

Basicly is connected to other BBS via FidoNet, a grouping of over 30,000 nodes world-wide. This allows users to exchange e-mail and topic-oriented messages without cost (though slower than through equivalent Internet services). For several years, Bob has been Fido Zone 1 (Canada and USA) coordinator- having whatever passes for power in Fido's anarchic structure.

In the past few years, faced with the explosive growth of the Internet, many have suggested that traditional BBSs are obsolete. The Sattis beg to differ. While they agree that some BBSs are shutting down, they point out that, in their experience, this has always been the case- like trendy restaurants, only a few survive for five years or more.

Basicly's user base dropped by about 10%, perhaps a result of users switching to the Internet, but recently started rising again. Calls have remained steady-at a bout 200 a day, the maximum the system can handle without expanding the number of telephone lines. For many users, the Sattis suggest, a local BBS will remain a valuable resource-providing a simpler interface, where information is easier to find. Fidonet message groups, because they are moderated, tend to offer a 'higher signal to noise ratio' than their Internet counterparts-Usenet groups, where readers often must wade through hundreds of off-topic messages or flames to find the information they seek.

As well, large files can often be transferred from a local BBS much faster than over an often-tenuous Internet connection. Similarly, performance on a local chat group tends to be much higher than the equivalent Internet Relay Chat. Finally, Bob Satti suggests, the cutting-edge on the Internet is demanding faster and faster connections and cutting edge hardware; the new RealVideo, for example, needs a 200 mhz Pentium Pro to receive real time video. Large numbers of users, perhaps the majority, will always be unable to make use of these technologies. For them, BBSs like Basicly can provide a home.

While the Sattis have given a lot to the on-line community, they feel like they've gotten as much back-"... a strong comradery that we don't see in the Internet". They're looking forward to the next 20 years with Basicly BBS.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan