The debugging of the Y2K issue is rallying a cross-section
of cable-related companies to swap information and technologies in hopes of nailing down a
compliant solution to the pesky and potentially dangerous problem.
Cable Television Laboratories Inc. and MediaOne Group Inc.
announced last week that the MSO will share valuable Y2K-integration and
interoperability-testing results with CableLabs, while other MSOs are lining up with
hardware, software and equipment manufacturers to devise foolproof strategies to beat Y2K.
Yet the problem touches every cable-related business,
albeit in varying degrees, and it is prompting everyone from programmers to
headend-equipment manufacturers to examine their ties with customers, vendors, clients and
their own internal networks in order to ensure Y2K compliance.
Customer-care and service segments top the priority list,
according to industry executives. "With 5 million core video subscribers, along with
digital and telephony customers, our products and services must work during the Y2K
period, and that includes our advertisers," MediaOne senior vice president and chief
information officer Tracie Muesing said.
She added that MediaOne has been testing all of its
business connectivity related to Y2K in a lab since 1997, with hardware and software
vendors participating in the battery of tests. "Some key vendor issues were with
'main-path' technology so the date wouldn't get misinterpreted. Timing modules needed
to be fixed, too," Muesing said.
Just how much confidence operators have in the ability of
their vendors and primary business partners to comply with Y2K is worrisome to many
operators and, frankly, to the entire cable industry.
Said Muesing: "We rely mostly on programmers,
equipment vendors [for set-top boxes and telephone switches], information-technology
systems and public telephone networks. Those are the areas we're focusing on." She
added that MediaOne has spent nearly $75 million on its Y2K strategy over the past three
Homegrown network-management devices and antiquated
back-office systems are considered to be the most vulnerable areas for Y2K problems,
according to Patrick Vertovec, general manager of Comcast Corp.'s Comcast Online
Communications unit and a key contributor to CableLabs' effort to solidify the industry's
Y2K effort. Cable operators, Vertovec cautioned, should take note.
"Older, homegrown systems are a problem. They may
continue to function, but they no longer continue to return expected results. Damage could
build for months and no one would ever see it," he said.
Viruses could add to the problem, he warned. "With
'patches' being downloaded to personal computers to fix the problem, viruses could be
a factor. This is where contingency plans and lockdowns come into play. It's rigid, but
there's exposure here."
For cable operators and industry-related businesses just
now starting the Y2K process, Vertovec said, "If you haven't started yet, it's too
Help may be on the way, however, through CableLabs' Web
site, which is designed to offer all of the Y2K work completed through CableLabs and
"It's designed to offer access to contingency plans
from several sources," Vertovec said. The information on the site will be updated
regularly, with all of the relevant data gathered thus far available Sept. 1, he added.
The information will include data on various computer
systems and supporting infrastructures for a company's mission-critical processes,
including ad sales, customer care and billing, core video, high-speed data and telephony,
according to CableLabs. In addition, templates will be available for testing and
Many of the newer services and companies such as Road
Runner should be less affected by Y2K. By creating a diverse stable of vendors and being a
young business, Road Runner has the advantage of deploying only newer, Y2K-compliant
software and equipment, vice president of operations Rusty Pickard said.
"We have tried to use a variety of different vendors
so that there are no catastrophic outages. And being a relatively new service, we're also
dealing with hardware and OSS [operating-system software] applications that are new. Now,
we're focusing on testing mission-critical applications," he added.
With a complicated web of networks and systems tying
together cable-system dispatchers, field technicians, billing and other disciplines,
work-force-management providers are encountering a different set of Y2K challenges.
"We've upgraded all of our customers to Y2K-version
software, but billing systems are still getting qualified. That's something we're working
on," said Michael Richard, president of Brazen Inc., a work-force-management-system
Programmers aren't immune to the Y2K bug, either. In fact,
content providers are high on the fear scale as far as Y2K compliance.
"It's a massive issue. Are there computer programs
written that aren't compliant? What about patches?" asked Mark Coleman, vice
president of national technical operations for Fox Sports Net.
FSN began its Y2K plan over a year ago, Coleman said, and
it is now in its contingency-plan phase.
For FSN and its complex network of regional sports networks
-- along with its staggered sports newscasts in several different time zones, live events
and international programming -- Y2K has presented monumental challenges.
"We've had to go through every component of Fox Sports
News, and the traffic systems were a real issue. That's where reports and reconciliations
come in and make all of the components work," Coleman said. "But we've gone to
all of our vendors, like production trucks and satellite-delivery services, to ensure that
FSN's international business is vulnerable, as well. Said
Coleman: "Some regions aren't Y2K-compliant, and that's a big issue for us. We're
looking at each network, what content is being provided and whether it's live."
The entire Y2K process, Coleman admitted, has been
exasperating. Yet through it all, he said, there's actually a silver lining, sort of.
"It's given us a chance to step back and take a look at our entire organization
beyond Y2K and where we're vulnerable. I think it's helped us as we grow our new
With the insidious nature of Y2K, the silver lining for the
cable industry may be in the newfound knowledge that its reliance on a host of
industry-related businesses is crucial to its own growth.