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Phone Firms May Have a Few Y2K Hang-Ups

May 24, 1999|Jube Shiver Jr.

WASHINGTON — Wall Street has declared its computers up to snuff. The airline industry says all systems are go. But with less than 250 days before Jan. 1, there is growing concern that telephone users could be affected by the year 2000 computer problem.

The Y2K bug will hit during what is traditionally one of the heaviest calling periods of the year. An industry group set up by the Federal Communications Commission warned recently that because of the potential dialing glitches stemming from the calendar change, placing the traditional New Year's phone call may not be a good idea.

"Try to place important phone calls, particularly those overseas, before or after New Year's Day," urged the Network Reliability and Interoperability Council, in a March report that says such caution could help avert calling delays.

The good news, the council says, is that 90% of local telephone switches in the U.S. are expected to be ready for 2000 by Dec. 31.

But because the phone network spans the globe, some foreign carriers and smaller U.S. carriers may not have the resources to attack computer bugs as aggressively as the biggest U.S. phone companies have.

The council even rates the year 2000 preparedness of North American phone companies slightly lower than that of European firms, saying nearly half of small and medium-sized carriers in the U.S. "reported not having formal processes for managing the year 2000."

"It is very possible that there will be billing errors introduced," said Tome Nolle, a former computer programmer who heads the Voorhees, N.J.-based industry consulting firm CIMI Corp. "There will be cases where some billing system mistakenly records a call that lasts for 24 years and records a bill of $175 million."

Even experts who downplay the possibility of phone snafus say the industry will have to be vigilant over the next year to keep the phone system operating smoothly.

"We are very confident that there won't be any service-affecting disruptions," said Paul Hart, vice president of technical dispute resolution at the U.S. Telephone Assn. "But every change you make in the network has an option to create unforeseen problems."

Hart said he has cautioned FCC officials about imposing new mandates on the industry requiring network upgrades, out of fear that the additional work may slow the industry's efforts to prepare for 2000.

The so-called year 2000 computer bug relates to the shorthand most computers use to express the month, day and year of an event. While the shorthand is simple and economical, the downside is that by using only the last two digits to express the year, "1900" may be indistinguishable from "2000."

Several underlying support systems for the telephone network rely on date-sensitive computer operations. Customer bills, for instance, are based on calls placed during specific dates and times; phone network maintenance is done at specific intervals.

AT&T Corp. spokesman David Johnson said his company and BellSouth Corp. recently completed a successful series of tests indicating that domestic calls will continue to go through next year without a hitch.

But even if New Year's Day turns out to be uneventful, some experts predict the industry may have to be on the lookout for months to come because of other date anomalies. Feb. 29, 2000, for instance, does not follow the usual leap year convention of the Georgian Calendar.

"There is going to be a need for ongoing testing," said Martha Silver, a spokeswoman for the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies.

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