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Will 2000 be the wrong number for telephones?

When E.T. wanted to phone home, he simply rigged a device consisting of an umbrella, a fork and few other household items, and it worked like a charm – with no annoying long distance charges.

But had he tried that on the first day of the year 2000, he may not have been rescued. Here on Earth, phone companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get ready for Y2K, but experts predict that there still could be some outages – especially when trying to call foreign countries.

But will it be a major problem?



“I think we’re going to operate just fine. We’re ready for the year 2000,” said Mike Gilliam, vice president of Year 2000 Compliance for SBC Communications, the parent company of Pacific Bell. “Operating a telecommunications network requires continual innovation,” he said. “We’re always expanding and improving the network. The year 2000 represents a similar task, although on a larger scale.”

The Millennium Bug is our name for the fear that numerous date-sensitive computer applications and systems could fail when they turn over to 2000, failing to recognize the first two digits of the year. That could mean big problems for telecommunication companies, which rely on a complex network of voice, data and video services to power telephones, fax machines, computer networks and other information appliances.




On a small scale, potential computer glitches at the telephone company could knock out your local phone service for a short period of time. Or, when 2000 rolls around, you could receive a 100-year phone bill.

On a larger scale, the telecommunications sector is part of a computerized triangle which includes the banking and electrical power infrastructures. The failure of one would collapse the other two within months.

The transfer of information has become the lifeblood of modern society. Imagine if emergency response systems all failed at once? Or finance, transportation or energy distribution systems? All rely heavily on telecommunications.

A telecommunications network is sensitive to the weak link problem, where a single digit error can topple an entire system. AT&T, for instance, has 400 million lines of code. While only 2 percent or so would need to be fixed for Y2K compliance, identifying and fixing that 2 percent represents the world’s biggest Easter egg hunt.

But telecommunications companies claim they are up to the task. SBC budgeted $250 million for Y2K compliance in 1996, and says that it has already finished upgrading all of its computer systems and 75 percent of its network switches, which route phone calls.

In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, AT&T estimated that costs for its Year 2000 computer compliance project reached $375 million, and predicted an additional $225 million for 1999. Sprint initiated its Year 2000 program in June of 1996, and targets June, 1999 to be in full compliance.

“We really don’t think Y2K is going to affect our customers,” said SBC spokesman Brian Posnanski. “Our systems that handle billing, internal administration and customer support are all now compatible.”

Tom Oleson, Y2K research director at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass., tends to agree.

“It’s not going to be a serious problem,” said Oleson, who has authored several studies on Y2K issues. “The telecommunications industry has fixed everything they know of.”

But a recent edition of Business 2.0 Magazine gave the worldwide telecommunications industry a grade of C-minus when it came to Y2K preparedness. The magazine cited a recent U.S. State Department survey that found less than half of the telecommunications networks worldwide expected to be fully compliant by December 1999.

It’s fine for the U.S. companies to be ready, but when calling other countries, well, it takes two to have a conversation.

A brief trip through the Internet will uncover other Doubting Thomases. Y2K Tool, and Web site devoted to fixing potential Y2K computer problems, reminds viewers that “45 million pagers went silent in May 1998, when a satellite rolled out of position. … That will be a cakewalk compared to Y2K.”

Y2K Tool offers a variety of products from its “Y2K store,” including dehydrated food, candles and, most of all, information on how computer failures will affect “you and your family.”

The telecommunications network will most likely be little affected by the Millennium Bug. But the reality is that no one really knows for sure.

And suddenly, those new 33-cent stamps are looking pretty attractive.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a series

Next: The Bug Busters. The men and women who search for and destroy the Millennium Bug – for a price.

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