Usenet: Learn How to Access the System

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There are very few online services from the stone-age of personal computing that has survived the decades of innovation on the Internet.  As computer technology improved and microchips became smaller, users’ attention jumped from app to app as they were always intrigued by the next big advancement in both hardware and applications. However, some original services survived, including Usenet.

What is Usenet?

This computer network within the Internet that allows users to communicate via postings was first developed like a networked Bulletin Board System in 1979 by graduate students from both University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. Their idea was to make it possible to exchange information and ideas with other people using computers. The first publicly released news software to accomplish this was “A” news in 1980.

The system began to gain in popularity and revisions continued by others interested in this type of platform.  Along with being able to communicate with others through forums, called newsgroups, a method for sharing files was developed and this was a very new idea for the time.  That method, UUe or UUencoding, revolutionized Usenet and allowed file sharing decades before Torrents existed.

Although most people use email and the web to communicate with each other, post articles, and share files, Usenet is still in heavy use today.  With the advent of more modern technology, updates to the system have allowed for web-based applications that offer graphical, interactive interfaces. However, puritanical users continue to prefer direct access to Usenet.

While most newsgroups concentrate on one subject, there are others that are forums for thousands of topics.  Some of these newsgroups even contain billions of messages or files.

Why Use Usenet?

Although the downfall of Usenet has been predicted for decades, with some nay-sayers expecting it to descend in to a siberian wasteland in the 90’s, it is still being utilized by millions of people from all over the world. In reality, there are newsgroups which have been inactive for years, but having been replaced as much larger groups are created.

Most of those who are new to the system or who have been using it for years are primarily interested in exchanging files, called binaries, on the service.  There are actually thousands of newsgroups on Usenet dedicated to files, and these all begin with alt binaries in the name.  This hierarchy has groups dedicated to videos, music, pictures, movies, and software.  Like torrents, the files could be totally legit or illicit so caution is warranted.

Usenet vs. Torrents

There are many websites on which torrents have been uploaded, but it can be difficult to access older or obscure files because people must keep them seeded, so they are accessible.  Also, when you download torrents, your IP address is visible for anyone to see unless you know how to hide the address.  Even then, it’s not a risk many people feel comfortable taking.

  • Remain Anonymous

There are several advantages for using Usenet to download binary files instead of torrents. When you’re on the system, your IP address isn’t visible to anyone because you are connecting privately to a provider’s servers.

Also, if you’re using an SSL port, your data download is encrypted to protect it.  Since the files are on private servers instead of being seeded by individuals, old, unusual, and new files are always available when you’re looking for content.

  • Faster Downloads

When using a site with torrents to download files, your speed depends on the number of peers and seeders to which you can connect. If you don’t use a VPN, your internet provider will be able to see the amount bandwidth you’re using and can tell that you are file sharing, which they usually discourage since most torrent sites contain licensed content.

If you’re downloading binary files from a newsgroup, then your provider may see that you’re using a lot of bandwidth, but they won’t be able to tell why since the content is on private servers and encrypted before being sent to you. Unless you have a slow ISP, your downloads are going to be very fast because they always run at full speed.

  • Stability

With the demise of sites like TorrentHound, KickassTorrents, and Torrentz many users no longer feel that the environment for torrents is stable.  Usenet has existed for almost 40 years and shows every sign of being here another 40.

  • Other Newsgroups

Of course, binary files are not the only reason to access Usenet, as there are newsgroups for many other things. If you have a special interest or like to see what others are discussing, then you can use the service to read the articles or posts of other users.

If you don’t want to commit to using the system until you know what it contains, then you can search for providers that offer a master list of groups on them.  Along with providing a general master list, you can search for specific topics on some sites as there are tens of thousands of topics that are discussed.

Accessing the Usenet System 

Before you can read the articles or download binary files, you must first have access to the system. Accessing it requires two things: a Usenet provider and software.

There are many providers to choose from, just as there are ISPs to connect to the Internet. Each of them offers different connection speeds, with some offering speeds as low as 3Mbps and as high as 400Mbps. The higher the speed, the more connections you’ll have to the system, but the more you’ll pay for the service as well.

Many of the providers offer free access to the system, but these services are usually not recommended for a novice, or they offer a limited amount of information. There are free providers for accessing files dating back to the early days of Usenet, but they may only have a few thousand groups on their system.

Most providers that charge for their service host many tens of thousands of groups on their servers. They also may offer unlimited access to the system for a reasonable price, but prices vary depending on how many connections and the speed offered by the plan that you choose. However, the download limits for the service, usually in blocks of data like 5GB, 10GB, 200GB, are more.

Finding Software

Once you choose a provider, you will also need to find software for accessing. Although there are several software choices, most of them require you to buy the software. However, some service providers offer free software as a part of their service. Since navigating the system can be confusing for some new users, many providers offer tutorials to help them learn how to use it.

One of the main problems with Usenet is that it is a computer-based system and reliable apps are not available for smartphones yet. Not having good software for iPhone or Android smartphone operating systems means that over 50% of Internet traffic cannot access it.  Fortunately, some providers offer web-based interfaces that allow users to access their accounts via their smartphones.

By using the web based interfaces, you can search for content, preview files, and download them directly from your browser. There are also a few providers who offer access only via a web-based interface, so you can pull it up on any device that has a web browser. However, the web-based interfaces can be limiting, and some companies only offer their largest newsgroups on them.

Access through Newsreaders

If you have access to a computer, the best way to access everything is through an app called a newsreader.

There are several types of newsreaders available, most of which you will need to buy. Although there are a few free newsreaders available to download, they may have limits to what they can do. Also, email suites like Outlook usually have integrated newsreaders, but they are unpopular with many purists because they don’t always work as well as newsreaders specifically designed to access Usenet.

If you are curious about Usenet and want to start using the system, you will need to choose a provider and download software that has been written for it. While the access can be inexpensive, your cost will depend on how many connections you want and the speed you choose. However, you will have access to a wealth of information and files not available on other platforms.

About the author

Lakshya Dharamdasani

Lakshya is a content writer who writes about technology related issue. She is currently pursuing M.Sc. in Biotechnology.

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