In the final year before it is scheduled to strike, the Year 2000 technology problem is commanding global attention. Once an obscure software oddity, the now-infamous bug has become a major media event discussed at the United Nations and debated in Congress.
As the concern intensifies, federal agencies are working overtime to meet a White House-imposed March 31 deadline. If the agencies don't bring their systems into compliance, Y2K experts warn, Americans could feel the consequences in paralyzed air travel, nuclear plant shutdowns, or undelivered pension checks.
The gravity of the situation was underscored last night in President Clinton's State of the Union address.
"We must be ready for the 21st century from its very first moment, by solving the Y2K computer problem," Clinton declared. "If we work hard with state and local governments and businesses large and small, the Y2K problem can be remembered as the last headache of the 20th century, not the first crisis of the 21st."
The millennium bug refers to the fact that many computers are programmed to register only the last two digits of the year, meaning that "2000" may be read as "1900." If left uncorrected, such programs could generate errors and scramble the computers that companies use to keep track of customers, run their payrolls, and handle their accounts.
Despite the spring deadline the Clinton administration has set for federal agencies to have all mission critical systems prepared for the Year 2000 date change, a number of federal agencies are still far behind in their efforts to bring computer systems into Year 2000 compliance. Furthermore, the cost to rid all systems of the technology glitch will be $1 billion more than earlier estimates, according to the administration.
Although generally pleased with the progress that most federal agencies have made in bringing their computers into Y2K compliance, officials at the Office of Management and Budget said several still face "significant challenges."
For the first time since the OMB began reporting on Y2K status of federal government computers, the administration has acknowledged that some agencies may not make the March deadline for Year 2000 compliance and has urged agencies to develop contingency plans for systems that are not expected to be ready.
"We're going to have people without power and without telecommunication unless a lot more work is done at the local level," according to John Koskinen, the White House point man on the Y2K problem.
Making a system Y2K-compliant includes evaluating, testing, and in many cases rewriting software and replacing embedded microchips and individual lines of code. This can be done in house by information technology workers or through outsourcing and consulting contracts.
According to the OMB report, of the remaining 39 percent of the government's mission-critical systems that are not yet Y2K-compliant, 30 percent are still being repaired, 7 percent are still being replaced, and 3 percent will be retired.
At present, six agencies are not making adequate progress, down from seven in August. Seven agencies are making progress but with some concerns, down from eight last quarter. Eleven agencies are making satisfactory progress, compared with nine when the last report was released.
Reaction to the latest government Y2K progress report has been mixed.
The chairman of the House task force on the problem, Rep. Stephen Horn (R-California), released an earlier report card that details the progress of the largest efforts to avoid Year 2000 problems in federal computer systems and embedded chips.
"Unfortunately, the federal government has not made enough progress since the last report card when it also received a 'D,'" Horn said in a statement during the release of his report. "Executive branch departments and agencies are responding too slowly in assessing and repairing their mission-critical systems, their telecommunications equipment..., embedded-chip systems, and...data exchanges."