FCC Year 2000 Survey: Uncertainty in Wireless Industry

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The wireless communications industry may be at serious risk for Year 2000 problems, according to a recent report from the FCC. And while some industry associations suggest otherwise, experts say consumers should take their advice with a grain of salt.

FCC Year 2000 Survey: Uncertainty in Wireless Industry

In June 1998, according to the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, there were over 60 million wireless subscribers in the United States. Doctors, business executives and an increasing number of ordinary people rely on wireless technology to keep in touch.

Wireless communications is the most diverse sector in the communications industry. It encompasses commercial services such as cellular telephones, taxi radios and pagers, as well as the radio equipment used for 911 and emergency response. As widespread and important as this technology has become, a recent report from the FCC casts doubt on the Year 2000 status of the companies that provide it.

The FCC sent its Y2K Communications Sector Report to a random sample of 300 commercial wireless providers and also to the twelve largest carriers in the country.

Only 31 percent of the 312 companies that received the FCC survey actually completed it. The responding companies provide wireless service to some 42 million customers across the United States -- a number that, according to the FCC, is less than 40 percent of the total number of U.S. commercial wireless subscribers in 1997. To the FCC, such a low response rate suggests that the threat of Year 2000 problems in the wireless communications industry is very real.

Despite its limited scope, this survey did reveal a fairly typical pattern of compliance. Every one of the large carriers (those with over 500,000 customers) said they have already implemented Year 2000 remediation plans. But only about half of the small ones reported having done so. Fortunately, the FCC noted, most parts of the country have a sufficient number of commercial carriers to handle the needs of the market even if several end up disabled by the Millennium Bug.

To provide a more complete idea of the Y2K status of wireless communications, the FCC report referred to the findings of Year 2000 studies conducted by two major industry associations, the CTIA and the Personal Communications Industry Association. The CTIA report, which was released in September 1998, indicated that most wireless carriers are working on Y2K and plan to complete their efforts by the second quarter of 1999. The PCIA claimed the fact that wireless equipment is continually upgraded means that most of it should automatically be Year 2000-compatible. But this is a dangerous assumption. As the FCC pointed out, the age of a piece of equipment is not always an accurate measure of its Year 2000 status.

In any case, some experts suggest the results of any industry survey should be taken with a grain of salt. According to the Senate Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, this type of survey is the most widely-used method for measuring Year 2000 compliance. However, self-reporting of Year 2000 status (even when required by law) has yielded unreliable results in most sectors. "Industry associations represent the interests of their member companies," observed Don Meyer, the committee's press secretary.

As a regulatory agency and part of the federal government, the FCC is independent of the companies it oversees. Therefore, its findings are more likely to be impartial. Over the next nine months, the agency will continue its search for compliance information with additional surveys, one of which will assess the Year 2000 status of non-commercial wireless licensees. It also plans to re-survey the commercial carriers that declined to respond to its initial inquiry.

The results will be published in future FCC reports. Stay tuned.

-- Arlin H. Adams (ahadams@ix.netcom.com), May 12, 1999

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