In a mere 21 months, the world is going to stop. At least that's the impression you get by reading some of the stories about the "Year 2000 bug," that odd affliction that is threatening to affect countless computers and the software that runs them. Already, major consumer magazines are talking about how everything from the U.S. Postal Service to airline travel will be negatively affected.

Many times, when it comes to media-hyped computer-related phenomena (remember the Michelangelo virus?), the facts are often overplayed and the focus becomes more of the problem, rather than the solution. No one really knows what's going to happen when the ball in Times Square descends on New Year's Eve 1999, but with the incredible amount of focus that the issue has received, legions of software programmers and hardware companies are devoting significant man-hours to the situation.

Just how bad will things be on that fateful January 1? Some computer-controlled processes will escape unscathed. Others will indeed be affected. Experts are predicting all kinds of scenarios, from widespread power outages to telecommunication interruptions; from lost financial transactions to factory shut-downs. Even the techno-savvy say they'd rather not fly in an airplane or get on elevators that day, choosing not to tempt fate.

The cable angle

Will this millennium roll-over affect cable systems? It's bound to have some effect, but efforts are already underway to make sure the effect remains small. "Even if we did nothing, it wouldn't bring us to our knees," reports Patrick Vertovec, director of the Year 2000 Program Office at Jones Intercable. "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 number, and age, of much of the industry's computer hardware and software, how can that be? Isn't there vast uncertainty as to what will actually occur?

In reality, while a lot of back-office and customer service functions are controlled by computers, most of what the consumer actually "sees" isn't. Never-theless, the cable industry has focused its Year 2000 compliance efforts on those areas that do affect customers.

The year 2000 bug can affect many layers of a cable operator's network.

Cable Television Laboratories is throwing its support into the effort by offering to send out requests for information (RFIs) to vendors and by promising to share information and "fixes" throughout its customer base. According to Doug Semon, director of network operations at CableLabs, the Labs will act primarily as a clearinghouse of information, but will not actually test products or offer certification as to their 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, inventorying the headend hardware they use, then determining the level of exposure they'll have with each product. Most will have little or no exposure, but key areas include anything that is date-dependent, including 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," notes Semon. "Most have recognized that they may have problems, and they're being proactive about it."

Similarly, most of the vendors have extensive programs underway to ensure their customers don't suffer from any problems either on December 31, 1999, January 1, 2000 or February 29, 2000. Another critical date includes September 9, 1999, which could also throw some software out of whack.

"It's a massive undertaking, but we're expecting to have all our customers converted to new software by 2Q99," says Bob McKenzie, VP of marketing at CableData, a leading billing and PPV software vendor. CableData later this year will begin converting all its customers to Version 4.0 of its DDP/SQL software, which will be Year 2000 compliant. The company is already testing that software, and is working with MSOs to schedule conversion dates. CableData is also advising third-party software vendors on how to update software so it will run on the new platform.

In its preparations, CableData has already built an automated test center at its headquarters which can run 25,000 scripts in about three days, instead of the 16 weeks it used to take. "Our testing is giving us a good feeling that we can begin rolling out our new software in the third quarter of this year," says Lanse Leach, chief technical officer and VP of research and development at CableData.

General Instrument and Scientific-Atlanta 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, says Don Vassel, director of marketing.

Operators using Version 6 software have already been upgraded to new software that is compliant, while those who use Version 7 software will be converted soon, says Max Brogi, senior product manager for controller systems at GI. Companies using the current Version 8.2 software are already compliant and have no need to upgrade, he says.

From a hardware standpoint, only those systems that are still using hardware that pre-dates 1991 are truly at risk. In those cases, because the hardware is so old, operators will have to start all over anyway.

As for set-tops, only GI's new CFT2200 advanced analog unit will be affected. Already, new firmware is being tested at GI, and an upgrade will be available soon.

"We plan to call between 500 and 600 sites in the U.S., and it's our goal to have 90 percent of them upgraded by the end of this year," notes Vassel.

S-A intends to finish evaluating its hardware and software solutions and begin calling its customers within the next six months, says Conrad Wredberg, chairman of the operating committee at S-A. The internal goal is to have action plans in place and begin addressing the problems by the first of January 1999.

Operators using early "System Manager" controllers are probably not compliant; systems that have deployed later versions of System Manager 10 and any System Manager 20 devices will be compliant, says Wredberg. "I don't see any major (problems) occurring," he says. "In fact, given the amount of coverage this is getting, I think it would be incredible if there were any issues at all."

Vertovec believes operators have to be vigilant. But he also cautions against being too casual. "The biggest thing to keep in mind is to look in all the obvious places and think about the ripple effects. Our concern is that we could have a number of little things happen that will overwhelm our ability to react."