The way things look so far, the cable industry's New Year's
Eve may be marked more by bored technicians than by a millennial meltdown.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and countless people-hours
spent detecting, fixing and planning for technical and operational problems related to the
Year 2000 date change have prepared cable to deal with the "Millennium Bug."
"We're very well along in contingency plans, but it's
a dynamic situation, and it needs to be adapted to," said Bill Tompkins, program
director for Y2K readiness at General Instrument Corp. "Certainly, as you get further
into the year, circumstances or events may show that you need to modify the contingency
Operators' and vendors' efforts to pinpoint, test and (when
necessary) fix millions of lines of software code and hardware elements in internal and
external systems have largely given way to repeat testing and the creation of contingency
Those plans are designed to deal with potential failures of
their own systems, and also to respond to events that are out of their control, ranging
from widespread power outages and civil unrest to inadequate Y2K readiness by suppliers.
"We've been at the remediation process for better than
two years. We have ourselves in a position where we are very confident that we have
completed the date-fix work and have tested that work," MediaOne Group Inc. vice
president of risk management Jim Blair said. "Virtually everything we are now about
is planning and preparing for any event that could occur during the rollover at the new
The latest benchmark came last week in a report to the
Federal Communications Commission by Cable Television Laboratories Inc., which has been a
Y2K-information clearinghouse and compliance coordinator for cable operators for more than
CableLabs hired an independent information-technology
consultant, Modis Professional Services Inc.'s modis Solutions unit, to observe Y2K
testing at several systems for MediaOne and AT&T Broadband & Internet Services,
covering critical systems such as addressable set-top controllers, automated-response
units and customer-care systems.
The consultant focused on Y2K interface-interoperability
performance between the hardware and software of the MSOs and vendors, including CSG
Systems International Inc., CableData Inc., Convergys Corp., GI, Scientific-Atlanta Inc.
and Zenith Electronics Corp.
The company also observed ad-insertion testing by
SkyConnect Inc. with six other vendors, which successfully inserted ads on MTV: Music
Television under five different date-rollover scenarios. They encompassed the millenium
change, as well as other flash points, such as Sept. 9 (9-9-99) and leap year 2000.
"Based on the observations made and the documentation
reviewed, it would appear that the tests were conducted in a well-planned, organized
manner, and that these interfaces will perform as expected with regard to Year 2000
compliance," CableLabs reported.
Those observations are not intended to be definitive. But
they reflect how most operators and vendors -- some of which have worked on Y2K-type
issues for more than two years -- are positioning themselves to deal with a broad variety
of potential threats to their operations.
"Overall, as long as I can trust what my vendors are
telling me, in a lot of cases, I think we won't have any problems at all," Cox
Communications Inc. director of management-information-systems applications Tom
Cowperthwaite said. "I don't think there will be mass chaos and everybody losing
service for days on end. I think problems will be very isolated and very minimal."
Preparedness stems partly from the number of opportunities
Y2K remediators have had in identifying and experiencing date-related events. As many as
35 different past and upcoming date changes have been identified as creating potential
problems with information systems, according to Telcordia Technologies Inc.
The most publicized threat has been from problems with
computer systems using older software with coding that represents years as two digits --
with "99" representing 1999, for example.
The rollover to year 2000 could cause the systems to fail
completely or to generate bad data -- a problem the FCC has warned might not be detected
for months or years.
Cable's checklist was a big one, including critical systems
such as cable headends; billing, customer-care and other computer-reliant infrastructure;
and ancillary items with embedded computer systems, like office-building controls or
GI alone had to contact about 300 vendors as part of an
evaluation process that will continue through year's end.
But in attacking the potential problems over the past two
years, many players already had an advantage -- significant, ongoing system rebuilds that
piggybacked with Y2K remediation.
"We were fortunate because we were in the process of
doing a lot of stuff as far as upgrading applications and plant," Cowperthwaite said.
"When it came to Year 2000, we were already addressing that."
Besides the countless compliance tests they already have
run, cable players get another dry run of sorts this week, when the date rolls to Sept. 9.
The 9-9-99 date mimics a four-character code used in a
number of older computer programs to execute specific actions or terminate the programs,
raising the possibility that unfixed software might cause the programs to crash or perform
This Thursday's "event" raises significant risks,
with some industry participants creating contingency plans for dealing with failures of
their own or external systems on or after midnight Sept. 8.
But widespread problems are not expected to occur, partly
because Y2K-remediation technicians have been expanding software year-date fields to four
digits from two, so "1100" and "9999" become "112000" and
"We're using 9-9-99 as a test date for
ourselves," Blair said. "It's a date firm at which we'll test our entire
millenium-recovery system from top to bottom, beginning on the 8th for
international systems and the 9th for domestic. We'll have our regional
operations and Denver teams in place to report those results and work our way through the
operating processes and decision processes we would expect to use on [Dec.] 31 and [Jan.]
AT&T Broadband has already tested the 9-9-99 rollover,
and it is "not expecting any issues," spokeswoman Tracy Hollingsworth said. The
company is preparing contingency plans for Jan. 1, and it expects to have Y2K testing
completed by the end of the third quarter.
If nothing happens this week, 9-9-99 will mirror other
recent date-rollover events that turned largely into big nothings. They included the July
1 start of the corporate fiscal year for many companies, the Aug. 21 resetting of clocks
on global positioning satellites (which caused problems for hundreds of Japanese motorists
whose vehicles had GPS devices) and the date change last Dec. 31 that affected addressable
controllers that were unable to roll over past 1998.
Even if the Y2K rollover itself becomes a nonevent, cable
operators and vendors generally intend to continue system-compliance verification and
testing to monitor problems that may not crop up for days or weeks.
They also are preparing for the events of New Year's Eve
that might accompany the date change.
MediaOne's plans include having a team of about 30 people
at its Denver-area headquarters, plus teams in other regions, to coordinate planned
responses for incidents that Blair said could include waves of Internet-distributed
computer viruses or phone-call-volume traffic higher than on Mother's Day.
"We intend to be better prepared for this than we have
ever been prepared for any other event," he said, adding that MediaOne's
emergency-preparedness experience includes events from ice storms to earthquakes.
"Our success will be measured on whether our customers have consistency of service
and whether our employees will be safe in coming to work."