Cable operators wondering about how the widely publicized
"Year 2000" problem will affect them had better take action soon.
The millennium rollover will affect cable systems, but
probably not disastrously, according to several MSO executives who are already at work on
Just how bad will things be on that fateful Jan. 1? Some
computer-controlled processes will escape unscathed. Others will indeed be affected. Even
the techno-savvy said they would rather not fly in airplanes or get on elevators that day,
choosing not to tempt fate.
In the cable industry, efforts are already under way to
make sure that the effect remains small.
"Even if we did nothing," said Patrick Vertovec,
director of the Year 2000 Program Office at Jones Intercable Inc., "it wouldn't
bring us to our knees.
"It would generate a lot of telephone calls and a lot
of truck rolls, but I don't see this as a 'lights-out' situation,"
But given the age of much of the industry's computer
hardware and software, how can that be? Isn't there vast uncertainty as to what will
In reality, while a lot of back-office and customer-service
functions are controlled by computers, most of what the consumer actually "sees"
Nevertheless, the cable industry has focused its Year
2000-compliance efforts on those areas that do affect customers.Cable Television
Laboratories Inc. is throwing its support into the effort by offering to send out requests
for information to vendors and by promising to share information and "fixes"
throughout its customer base.
According to Doug Semon, CableLabs' director of
network operations, CableLabs will act primarily as a clearinghouse of information, but it
will not actually test products or offer certification compliance.Clearly, this is an
issue between each individual cable operator and its vendors, which could number into the
hundreds, according to Vertovec. The first step? Cable operators should be going through
their headends, taken inventory of the headend hardware that they use, then determining
the level of exposure that they'll have with each product.
Most will have little or no exposure, but key areas include
anything date-dependent, such as billing software, pay-per-view event schedulers,
addressable set-top controllers, ad-insertion equipment and similar devices.The good news
is that many of the large cable operators have already started the process.
"It's not like [the MSOs] are ostriches about
this," Semon said. "Most have recognized that they may have problems, and
they're being proactive about it."Tele-Communications Inc. is one MSO
that's already started. According to Don Watson, director of addressable operations
and network reliability at TCI, it's a bit too soon to know how exposed the company
is to the problem, but he's optimistic that TCI customers won't see any ill
effects at all. "Clearly, operators that wait until the last minute could encounter
problems that have a significant impact on the consumer," he said.
But by getting started now, and by planning to upgrade and
replace equipment where necessary, Watson doesn't expect to put himself in that
situation.Similarly, most vendors have extensive programs under way to ensure that their
customers don't suffer from any problems on any of the "critical" days that
include Dec. 31, 1999; Jan. 1, 2000; and Feb. 29, 2000. Another critical date is Sept. 9,
1999, which could also throw some software out of whack."It's a massive
undertaking, but we're expecting to have all of our customers converted to new
software" by the second quarter of 1999, said Bob McKenzie, vice president of
marketing at CableData Inc.
CableData will begin converting all of its customers later
this year to version 4.0 of its DDP/SQL software, which will be Year 2000-compliant. The
company is already testing that software, and it is working with MSOs to schedule
CableData is also advising third-party software vendors on
how to update software so that it will run on the new platform. General Instrument Corp.
and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. also have programs in place designed to take the sting out of
the millennium bug's bite.
GI has been actively calling its customers in a proactive
effort to get everyone compliant by the end of this year, said Don Vassel, the
vendor's director of marketing. Operators using version 6 of GI's software
have already been upgraded to new software that is compliant, while those that use version
7 will be converted soon, said Max Brogi, senior product manager for controller systems at
GI. Companies using the current version of GI's software, 8.2, are
already compliant, and they have no need to upgrade, he said.From a hardware standpoint,
only those systems that are still using hardware that predates 1991 are truly at risk. In
those cases, because the hardware is so old, operators will have to start all over,
As for set-tops, only GI's new CFT-2200 advanced-analog unit will be affected. New
firmware is already being tested at GI, and the company will make an upgrade available
soon. "We plan to call between 500 and 600 sites in the United States, and
it's our goal to have 90 percent of them upgraded by the end of this year,"
Vassel said. S-A intends to finish evaluating its hardware and software solutions
and to begin calling customers within the next six months, said Conrad Wredberg, chairman
of its operating committee. The internal goal is to have action plans in place and to
begin addressing the problems by Jan. 1, 1999. Operators using early "System
Manager" controllers are probably not compliant, but those that have deployed later
versions of "System Manager 10" and any "System Manager 20" devices
will be compliant, Wredberg said.
"I don't see any major [problems]
occurring," he said. "In fact, given the amount of coverage that this is
getting, I think that it would be incredible if there were any issues at all."