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Calling for telecom Y2K fixes

The Year 2000 Senate Special Committee looks at the status of efforts in the telecom industry to make computers recognize the year 2000.

After the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 1999 and the New Year's party comes to an end, will you be able to call a cab to get home?

It's a question the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem addressed today as they looked at the status of efforts in the telecommunications industry to make computers recognize the year 2000.

"The global telecommunications infrastructure is the central nervous system of modern society," Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the committee, said during his opening statement.

The Senate committee today called for the establishment of a body to coordinate industry-wide testing and contingency plans since currently none exist. The group was also briefed by Defense Department officials who discussed plans to respond to a Y2K-related telecommunications emergency, particularly important because 90 percent of the Defense Department communications travel over the public network. They also discussed how U.S. national security could be impacted by such disruptions.

"Daily, 270 million Americans depend on this complex web of voice, data, and video services that enable their telephones, radios, fax machines, computer networks, televisions, and other information appliances. Major national and international enterprises, such as emergency response, national security, finance, transportation, health care, government, energy distribution, and others, are critically dependent on reliable, 24 hours a day, seven days a week telecommunications," Bennett said.

Without telecommunication services, the nation's ability to receive, gather, and respond to information would be as limited as it was for our ancestors before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Bennett argued. To bolster his claim, Bennett pointed out some of the critical enterprises which depend upon telecommunications services: the National Weather Service; the Department of Defense; the Federal Reserve Board & Wall Street; the National Airspace System; the American Red Cross's Blood Service and the United Network for Organ Sharing; and the national electric power grid.

The Y2K problem, often called the millennium bug, is rooted in the way dates are recorded and computed. For the past several decades, systems have typically used two digits to represent the year, in order to conserve memory. With this two-digit format, however, the year 2000 is indistinguishable from 1900, or 2001 from 1901, causing systems to fail, leading to bank closures, power grid blackouts, elevators and hospital equipment malfunctions, and worse, some experts warn.

Edward Yardeni, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities, said looking at the telecom industry is key to understanding the scope of the problem facing the nation and the globe.

"We have to look at what the global ramifications are. On the whole, the telecommunications industry has been pretty ignored as an industry," when it comes to the Y2K issue. It's important because, "we could get all the work done on the other industries but if we can't make a call at the end of the day, what good is it?"

In the United States alone, there are 5 long distance carriers (not including the growing number of long distance resellers), 5 major national television broadcasters, 6 Regional Bell Operating Companies, more than 1,000 small phone companies, 16 communications satellite providers, more than 4,500 Internet service providers, hundreds of cellular phone companies, thousands of broadcast radio stations, and more than 11,000 cable services companies, according to committee estimates.

"While there are many positive indications that the industry is working very hard to solve the Y2K problem, it is critical that we as the Congress, the Federal Government, and the nation understand the awesome task facing the telecommunications industry," said committee member Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico). "We currently lack the assessments necessary to model potential Y2K failures. Experience, however, does tell us that hardware and software can fail unexpectedly. Private industry and government are both adept at surviving systems failures. But our ability to coordinate and continue operations in the event of a simultaneous wide spread failure is uncertain."

Bingaman said the susceptibility of the current generation of switching equipment to software-based disruption was demonstrated in the collapse of AT&T's long distance service in January 1990. In that failure, a line of incorrect code caused a cascading failure of 114 electronic switching systems.

In addition to Defense Department officials' testimony, the committee also heard briefings from Judith List, vice president of Integrated Technologies for Bellcore; Gary Beach, publisher of CIO magazine; Michael Powell, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission; Joseph Castellano, president of Network and Corporate Systems at Bell Atlantic; Jack Edwards, cochair of Network Group of the President's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, other officials from the federal government, and executives from the industry.