Watch out for Y2K
We’re not going to tell you again: Jan. 1, 2000, is looming around the corner. Agencies and companies not actively fixing their systems should be making contingency plans. The FCC finds medium-sized public safety entities and service providers are most at risk.
January 1, 2000, is inexorably approaching. While the public is wondering if it will have electricity or enough drinking water (or which party to go to), the FCC is wondering if the wireless telecommunications industry will be ready for Y2K. With only five months to go, agencies and companies that have not reached compliance yet (and especially those that don’t even have a plan yet) should be preparing contingency plans. Even an agency close to 100% Y2K compliance should not overlook contingencies. The magnitude of the problem (more than 25 billion equipment-embedded chips in the United States alone) makes some system breakdowns likely.
“Emergency services are crucial to the life and safety of Americans, and the Year 2000 problem poses a real and palpable threat to the continued operation of these services,” said FCC Commissioner Michael K. Powell on April 29 before the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.
The FCC has decided that the wireless communications sector, commercial and emergency, is at risk, “given the uncertainty of its efforts at this time.”
Y2K communications sector report The FCC’s efforts to identify risks posed to communications systems is documented in the Y2K Communications Sector Report, issued in conjunction with the Network Reliability and Interoperability Council (NRIC) on March 30. NRIC is a broad-based federal advisory group that was chartered to advise the commission on network reliability issues, including Y2K.
The FCC conducted a survey that targeted a random sample of 300 commercial wireless entities, including licensees in the cellular service, personal communications services, SMRs and paging services. Thirty-one percent of all carriers responded to the survey. In 1997, however, there were about 108 million commercial wireless subscribers, so the responses received represented less than 40% of the entire wireless customer base.
The FCC said that it was encouraged by the progress being made by larger companies to prepare and was “cautiously optimistic” about the ability of the companies to withstand unforeseen problems with minimal disruptions to services. The FCC expressed concern about the smaller companies, however. Many of the small- and medium-sized companies that have adopted a systematic approach to addressing Y2K have completion deadlines dangerously close to the dreaded date, which leaves scant time for delays from vendors or remediation of problems discovered during systems testing. Many small companies have not even adopted systematic approaches to addressing Y2K.
The report did not assess Y2K readiness in the private wireless community, which represents more than 16 million users, except in its discusssion of emergency services (about 10% of private wireless). Because of concerns about the Y2K readiness of all wireless entities, the FCC is undertaking another survey to assess the status of non-commercial wireless licensees. Despite the FCC’s lack of private wireless documentation, sources within that sector express confidence in general preparedness.
“Because private wireless systems promote productivity, few companies are anxious to provide detailed information on their Y2K compliance, which might be used against them by their competitors,” said J. Sharpe Smith, communications and public affairs manager for the Industrial Telecommunications Association (ITA). “We have been assured by the major radio system manufacturers that the lion’s share of the land mobile communications equipment out there will not be affected when the calendar flips over to Jan. 1, 2000, or one of the other crucial dates.”
“It is my sense that the major corporations in the United States have moved forward on this issue and are correcting any problems in their computer systems, including their private wireless systems,” Smith said. “For example, Federal Express is already using its second generation of Y2K-compliant equipment in its mobile data terminals. Now that’s proactive.
“It looks like users of older analog dispatch systems will be unaffected. This means that smaller companies, which don’t have the staff to reprogram their radio systems, won’t lose communications due to this computer bug. It is, perhaps, the mid-size companies with more complex networks that need to be the most careful,” Smith said.
Commercial services The FCC’s survey of wireless carriers revealed a preparedness gap between the large and small wireless companies. Only about half of the operators serving less than a half-million customers have implemented a remedial plan or process, while large operators have completed almost 60% of their fixes.
The survey did reveal that 54% of total respondents (representing about 23 million pops) have implemented a Y2K remediation plan or process. All of the responding carriers should have a remediation plan complete before December 1999. Because of the low response rate and the late completion date forecasted, however, the FCC said that greater effort should be devoted to contingency or backup plans.
The backup backup plan About 42% of the FCC’s survey total respondents have begun contingency planning: 64% of large carriers and 40% of small carriers. The large carriers average less than 50% completion, however; and small carriers average 70% completion of probability of risk assessment for all items.
The impact of Y2K problems is hard to measure at this point, but the potential for disaster looms. Cellular, PCS and paging providers could lose revenue, customers and reputation for reliability. These risks incite some kind of preparatory action, with large carriers doing just that. However, as the survey showed, only about half of the other operators serving less than a half-million customer have implemented such a plan.
Emergency services The FCC noted the importance of dispatch centers or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to emergency service call processing. Local communities own these systems and must take the necessary steps to prepare these systems for Y2K.
Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology, Washington, wrote in American City & County magazine in May 1999, that in fact, multiple areas of local government, from water serv-ices to public safety functions and emergency systems, needed to be Y2K complaint. “Y2K also affects functions as diverse as the operation of doors in jails and sophisticated medical devices in county hospitals,” Toregas wrote.
The FCC stated that the challenge to emergency communications was that several systems must interoperate seamlessly to ensure timely response by emergency personnel.
“Virtually every link in the emergency chain involves complex interrelated processes, and everywhere there are time-date stamps,” said Robert Miller, technical issues director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), at the “Year 2000: Maintaining Emergency Response Communications” forum.
A concern lies with the call processing at the PSAP. Such telecommunications equipment is not under the direct jurisdiction of the FCC nor within its area of expertise. The assessment of the readiness of the PSAPs is difficult because of the disaggregated nature of the control and ownership of this equipment, Powell said. NRIC estimates that there are 6,739 PSAPs in the territory of the eight largest telephone companies and that they have service contracts with 81% of those, or 5,456 PSAPs. Of those, 35% have been remediated for E9-1-1 call processing. These numbers do not account for small PSAPs, which the FCC doesn’t know about.
Dispatch remediation The third element in emergency communication involves dispatching emergency response teams. Manufacturers report that analog and digital radio systems operating in unencrypted, conventional mode (non-trunked mode not involving computer switching) are not date-sensitive and therefore are not typically at direct risk for Y2K failure.
For radio systems using computerized trunking, encryption, gateway and other advanced computerized features that are at higher risk for Y2K failure, manufacturers report that they are engaged in active user notification and remediation assistance programs. The major manufacturers controlling 90% to 95% of the public safety equipment market have reported that all new equipment now being sold is Y2K ready, and upgrades or remediation packages for all legacy equipment are now or will shortly be available.
Computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) may be at greater risk for Y2K failure. Replacing CAD systems may also take more than one year, so non-compliant CAD systems might not able to be replaced by 2000 (see sidebar on page 43).
Accountability for failure The risks stretch beyond equipment failure, however. Companies and governments could face lawsuits. The volume of legal claims from Y2K is projected to total as much as $1 trillion. Citizens could claim damages for personal injury resulting when a city’s E9-1-1 emergency dispatch system is slow or non-operational, delaying the arrival of an ambulance or police.
It is too late to start planning for Y2K. If a company, carrier or agency does not have a remediation plan in place, contingency planning is a must.