With headquarters in a White House-sponsored command center in Washington, D.C., companies will launch a cooperative effort to monitor networks around the world to ensure that potential problems stemming from the Year 2000 glitch don't disrupt the public Internet.
Companies like AT&T, MCI WorldCom, EarthLink Networks and Cisco Systems will open a 36-hour conference call where they'll be in constant communication as the year 2000 first dawns in New Zealand. The companies will also share Y2K-related network problems with each other online.
"We don't expect any problems," said Ira Ritcher, executive director of the Internet Operators Group, the coalition coordinating the effort. "This is a just-in-case activity. It could be that something happens in some other sector or industry."
The New Year's effort marks the culmination of exhaustive reviews of computer code in network hardware and software, as companies made sure that telephone and data networks would function normally on Jan. 1. All U.S. networks are believed to be Y2K compliant--meaning firms have fixed the date-related programming bug that has threatened to disable computer systems around the world.
The so-called Year 2000 bug stems from a short-cut taken in many older computer systems in which programmers used two numbers to represent a year, such as "99" for 1999. If not corrected, many systems could read 2000 as 1900, potentially causing computer systems to malfunction.
Y2K-related problems could be greater beyond the nation's borders, however. Even if all U.S. networks are compliant, they could be connected to networks that aren't. And that means if there's a glitch somewhere else, there's a small chance it could affect U.S. networks, possibly causing failures or outages.
The companies say this is unlikely; yet, it has happened before. In August, much of MCI WorldCom's frame relay system crashed after Lucent network hardware failed.
Last week AT&T's WorldNet service was thrown largely offline by misconfigured equipment in another network. These problems weren't related to the millennium bug, but serve as a warning of what could happen if network providers aren't careful.
But the network operators say they're planning on being very careful indeed, setting up a communications system that goes well beyond any security precautions they've taken before.
Early in the morning on Dec. 31 in New Zealand--midday on the 30th in the United States--companies will open a wide-ranging conference call. The call will stay live for close to 36 hours, or until companies are satisfied that any potential Y2K problems have passed.
All the companies involved will share trouble reports, including viruses, hacker attacks or basic network failures that emerge over the course of the day. They'll also be in close communication with representatives from other industries at the White House command center.
This is a unique effort, security experts say. Big corporations are ordinarily extremely loath to identify or share information about security problems. MCI WorldCom recently delayed releasing information about a frame relay outage, angering many customers.
"Usually security events are held very close to the vest," said Mark Cadrich, director of security for Conxion, a large business-focused Net service provider. "But because of the worldwide nature of the situation we're dealing with, communication is key."
Not all of the big network companies are entirely committed to the project, however. A Sprint spokeswoman said that company would keep its focus on the reports U.S. networking firms must make to the Federal Communications Commission that night. "Those reports take priority," Sprint spokeswoman Martha Lally said.
Sprintagreed to merge with MCI WorldCom in a deal worth close to $130 billion. Federal regulators have yet to approve the transaction.
But the companies say it is nevertheless in their best interest to make sure their competitors are up and running.
"Networks are now so entirely interdependent," AT&T spokesman Dave Johnson said. "It's in everybody's best interest to ensure that everybody is functioning normally."