Feds tackle telecom date problems

Federal executives have begun to address an aspect of the Year 2000 problem that has not attracted much publicity but is just as threatening and even more complicated than some of the problems associated with computers: how to fix telecommunications equipment to make certain it operates correctly on Jan. 1 2000.

The Year 2000 telecom problem presents especially sticky challenges. Even products and services described as Year 2000-compliant by vendors may not work correctly if they must interface with other products and services. Bill Nichols director of service planning at the General Services Administration's Federal Telecommunications Service said a product that will work fine in a stand-alone environment could encounter big problems in an interconnected configuration.

"You may have products in compliance but the interfaces with other equipment may not be in compliance " Nichols said. "It may result in dropped calls. We don't know what will happen."

Frank Lalley associate deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications at the Department of Veterans Affairs said he and his counterparts in other agencies have been extremely concerned about the potential for trouble. "We're treating it as a crisis " he said. "Every day we get a little more confident that the situation is becoming manageable. But we are dead serious about it."

In an effort to help agencies combat the problem GSA established a World Wide Web site (y2k.fts.gsa.gov) in August that includes a centralized database to which agencies can submit their inventories of telecom equipment and applications. Vendors can access these inventories and submit instructions on how to fix or replace the equipment. That information can in turn be accessed by federal agencies via the Web site.

Nichols said the site is protected by a firewall and all information exchanged by vendors and agencies is encrypted. As of mid-September four agencies had posted their inventories to the database he said.

Nancy Lamberton vice president of sales at Lucent Technologies Inc. praised GSA's initiative and similar efforts at the Defense Department as crucial to spark agencies' awareness of potential Year 2000 problems in telecom equipment.

She added that all Lucent switches introduced since 1990 are Year 2000-compliant but she said even users of this equipment must look closely at applications and adjunct hardware attached to the switches.

"We are working closely with customers so they understand that everything will not necessarily work fine just because their switches are compliant " she said.

The idea for a centralized database was developed this spring when members of the Interagency Management Council (IMC) a coalition of top federal telecom executives decided it would make more sense for agencies to consolidate their Year 2000 initiatives rather than each contacting the same vendors separately for advice.

"Agencies were analyzing their equipment and management systems to discover which were Year 2000-compliant and they found they were evaluating the same pieces of equipment " said Lalley who is chairman of IMC. "So rather than each of us doing it ourselves we should do it in some organized fashion."

According to Lalley about 25 percent of the government's telecom equipment needs to be upgraded or replaced.

The problem will be compounded because some solutions are not yet available and will require extensive testing within only a few months. "Some of the software fixes for some of these large systems will not be available until mid-1998 " Nichols said. "That puts a lot of pressure on agencies to go through acquisitions and tests by the Year 2000."

Lalley said many agencies have tweaked their telecom switches during the years creating an even more complex set of potential problems. "Often we design little computer interfaces with our telecom equipment " he said. "We need to make sure those extensions work."

Ed Dyl Year 2000 project manager at Lucent said most users with compliant switches will have no trouble making calls after 1999. He said the greatest potential for problems will lie in areas such as voice mail and cost accounting systems. "The switch isn't going to go down but there may be applications on switches that could be compromised " he said.

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