With less than 500 days remaining before Jan. 1, 2000, the
ubiquitous "Year 2000" dilemma will soon take center stage, as MSOs and vendors
gather to hammer out solutions to the curious problem.
The venue: the Cable Television Laboratories Inc.-hosted
Year 2000 Vendor Symposium in Denver Sept. 29 and 30.
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that cable customers
don't experience service disruptions when the calendar changes at 11:59:59 p.m. on
Dec. 31, 1999.
"The cable industry, as a whole, should be very
careful not to make mistakes, because their customers have alternatives," said Doug
Semon, director of network operations at CableLabs.
Patrick Vertovec, an engineering director for Jones
Intercable Inc. and chairman of the CableLabs "Y2K" working group, agreed.
"Service deliverability is the No. 1 priority with this," he said.
MSOs and vendors -- including headend-component makers,
set-top-box manufacturers and billing-system developers -- are expected to present their
Y2K-compliance plans at the Denver symposium.
Meanwhile, in an effort to provide its member-company MSOs
with detailed information about current and legacy equipment, CableLabs issued a request
for information in March to more than 100 vendors, asking about Y2K compliance. About
one-third have responded.
So far, the responses to the RFI run the gamut from simple
contact names and phone numbers to an extensive list of every product sold, with current
status of Y2K compliance and product updates and availability, Semon said.
In general, vendors are reporting a range of Y2K
compatibility, ranging from "everything that they've ever sold being
compliant" to promises of solutions that are still under development, he said.
"The vast majority [of vendors] are, at the very
least, significantly helpful," Semon said, ceding that "a couple of long-term
suppliers have not responded." He declined to name them. Still, he said,
"I'm not aware of any major suppliers, or even a midsized supplier, that
isn't doing anything" about Y2K.
CableLabs' work on Y2K began last fall, when a working
group of industry information-system professionals met to identify specific categories of
a cable operator's business that would be most affected when microprocessors of all
types need to read the change from 1999 to 2000.
That first look showed that the number of different
potential problems was actually quite large, Semon said, including everything from the
obvious -- personal computers running Windows 3.1 and billing software -- to the
not-so-obvious, like office-building controls, landscaping sprinkler timers and the
postage meter in the mail room.
"In any given cable office," Semon said,
"there's all kinds of equipment that's not going to be
However, CableLabs chose to concentrate on items that are
specific to cable service, such as signal reception, customer service and billing.
A checklist of equipment that could be affected by the Y2K
bug included network nonduplication switches, character generators and addressable
controllers, among others, Semon said.
Vertovec pointed out that automated processes at the
headend -- such as system managers, controllers and ad-insertion equipment -- are further
examples of critical equipment that must be checked for Y2K compliance.
He added that a challenge for Jones in ensuring Y2K
compatibility is in the PC-desktop area, due to the sheer number of PCs used in the
company. Vertovec discovered that some engineers at Jones were using "very old [PCs]
for single-purpose applications." One example, he said, is accessing dial-up
services, like online construction notification. Consequently, it was determined that
computers using older PC platforms should be removed from "critical-path business
Still another important Y2K issue: the compliance of older,
legacy cable-network products that may still be deployed in smaller cable systems, or for
which the manufacturer is no longer in business. Semon also expressed concern that smaller
operators may not have the contacts, resources or political clout to determine where they
stand with Y2K compliance.
Vendors and operators are not the only parties interested
in Y2K: Vertovec noted that the Federal Communications Commission has made inquiries into
the cable industry's preparedness. One issue important to the FCC, Vertovec said, was
that emergency-alert systems remain operational.
While naysayers have often referred to the Y2K bug in
apocalyptic terms, Vertovec believes that the issue is "a very manageable one"
for the cable industry.
But just in case anyone thought that Jan. 1, 2000, was the
only date to worry about, Semon pointed out that some software was written that used four
digits -- 9999 -- as an "end-file" marker. This may cause some applications to
"go to sleep" on Sept. 9, 1999. There may also be some problems with the fact
that 2000 is a leap year, with an extra day in February.