Y2K seen as threat to local services

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Y2K seen as threat to local services U.S. official urges communities to hold dialogues with residents on problems


By Jim Landers / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON - The Year 2000 computer bug is more likely to cause failures among local utilities, hospitals and government services than widespread national shutdowns, White House Y2K czar John Koskinen said Monday.

Mr. Koskinen said the federal government was urging local service providers to host "community conversations" to discuss readiness, continuing computer problems and contingency plans. He said cities across the country would start such dialogues in June.

Austin will be the first in Texas to hold one of the project's conversations. The July 10 meeting is sponsored by the state Year 2000 Project Office.

Jack Gribben, a spokesman for Mr. Koskinen, said discussions were under way with Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk's aides as well as with TXU Corp., formerly Texas Utilities, about hosting a similar meeting in Dallas.

The Y2K problem stems from a programming standard that left many computers with just two digits to represent the year. On Jan. 1, 2000, those computers will read "00," which may be interpreted by the program as 1900. Unless the problem is fixed or the system is replaced, many computers will fail.

Mr. Koskinen said at a news conference that there are still small and midsize service providers taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the computer problem, assuming that they will be able to quickly repair any failures that occur Jan. 1.

Others, he said, have done a lot of work but are reluctant to discuss what they're doing, leaving the public in the dark.

"So we want to encourage the community conversations approach, not to be cheerleaders or to create a false sense of security, but to share information, say what the risks are and what preparations are appropriate," he said.

Ed Yourdon, a consultant and author of Time Bomb 2000, agreed with Mr. Koskinen's forecast but doubted that the community conversations approach would adequately address the matter.

"The biggest problems are going to be in the small towns where they have done absolutely nothing, and they will wake up Jan. 1 and find that everything has broken all at once," he said.

He said the conversations would be of little value if five or six service providers - banks, electric utilities, phone companies, municipal officials and such - stood up and assured the audience that everything is going to be fine.

"The people who are knowledgeable about Y2K will go away frustrated, and the majority of the rest could go away with a false sense of confidence," he said.

Louis Barton, Y2K compliance director with Frost Bank, said San Antonio has gone further by hosting several meetings throughout the city to discuss the problem.

Mr. Barton said the Greater San Antonio Y2K Coalition has hosted meetings in malls, churches and neighborhoods with business and government officials answering questions.

Mr. Koskinen said that even though laggard service providers might have trouble fixing their computers in time, it still makes sense to get started and to prepare contingency plans.

A survey released Monday estimated that almost 1.4 million small firms across the country - nearly 30 percent of all small businesses at risk to Y2K problems - plan to take no action.

The survey, based on a nationwide sample of 500 small-business owners taken in April, was done for the National Federation of Independent Business Education Foundation and Wells Fargo & Co.

The survey showed that about 3 million small businesses have acted on the problem.

"It's still not too late for small businesses who've not prepared for Y2K to do so, but the clock is ticking," said Mike James, a Wells Fargo executive vice president.

-- Arlin H. Adams (ahadams@ix.netcom.com), May 25, 1999

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