Telephone carriers: Public switched network almost 2000-ready

Telephone carriers: Public switched network almost 2000-ready

By Wiliiam Jackson

The Network Reliability and Interoperability Council has good news for government users who are counting on the telephone in case of systems trouble on New Year's Eve.

'The risk of failure of the domestic public switched telephone network is minimal,' said Paramdeep Sahni, chairman of the NRIC focus group studying network year 2000 readiness.

The major carriers, which account for more than 98 percent of the nation's phone lines, were more than 98 percent done with year 2000 preparations as of June 30, said Sahni, a project officer for AT&T Corp.'s year 2000 efforts.

One nagging concern, however, is a lack of reliable information about the status of the nation's 1,300 small to midsize telephone carriers and about conditions in foreign countries.

The smaller carriers control less than 2 percent of the nation's telephone lines, and many do not own switches, said Gerry Roth, vice president of technology programs at GTE Corp. He estimated last month that 99 percent of the nation's 11,000 switches were ready for the new year and that the figure would reach 100 percent this month.

Eighty percent of the countries that account for most of the United States' international telephone traffic are assessed at medium and low risk, he said.

NRIC, a federal advisory council chartered by the Federal Communications Commission, held a forum in Washington last month to discuss findings. NRIC was chartered in 1992 in response to service outages and rechartered in 1994. Two years later, it was chartered for a third time to study implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the current iteration received an FCC charter last year for year 2000 investigations.

Now that the bulk of work on U.S. telephone networks is done, the prognosis for Jan. 1 is good, said NRIC chairman Michael Armstrong, chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T Corp. But he cautioned, 'The last thing I want anyone to feel is comfortable.' Network degradation could crop up weeks or months into the new year, and February's leap day could also be a stumbling block, he said.

'No one should breathe easy until March,' Armstrong said.

Telephone companies are creating contingency plans to see them through possible problems. Besides updating software in switches and other network components, the carriers have fixed their business systems and assured themselves of continuity in outside systems, such as power and other utilities.

Home interests

'Out of self-interest, we will make sure our building systems work,' Armstrong said.

Telephone companies also are checking to see whether the nation's 7,000 public service answering positions'such as 911 emergency services'are in working order, said Frank Ianna, president of AT&T Network Services and NRIC vice chairman.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has told NRIC that most such positions are at least on track to be ready by Jan. 1. NRIC is working to get detailed information from state and local authorities.

Like all customer premises equipment, public service answering positions are the responsibility of their owners, not of phone companies.

'It's up to the owner of the equipment to make sure it is Y2K-compatible,' Ianna said, and most of it'in both public and private sectors'apparently is, although statistics are hard to come by.

The biggest question mark about year 2000 network preparedness is in foreign countries. About 90 percent of U.S. international traffic involves 53 countries. By the end of June, 51 percent of them were listed at low risk for problems, and another 29 percent at medium risk, Roth said.

'Twenty percent of the traffic is a concern to us,' Sahni said. Sixty-seven percent of the small-traffic-volume countries are estimated to be at high risk.

The biggest headache of all is that NRIC knows little about the actual conditions in any of the foreign networks and probably will not know until months after Jan. 1.

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