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Paying a 53-Million-Minute Phone Charge

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 18, 1996 – It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. With less than four years until the year 2000, scientists and technicians around the world are trying to teach computers how to tell what year it is.

The problem is most computers use only the last two digits when computing years. Things are fine through ‘96, ‘97, ‘98 and ‘99, but ‘00 means problems and money.

 

Computer companies and government computer experts have known of the problem for years. The crux of the "Year 2000 Problem" is many computer systems and software applications cannot tell '00’ means 2000, not 1900.

 

How much money? According to the Gartner Group, a research firm following this problem, it could mean $300 billion to $600 billion worldwide, and Gartner spokesmen say their estimate may be low.

 

DoD is following the problem, but doesn’t have an estimate yet of how much the fix will cost the department. "We will have to examine millions of lines of code," said Bob Molter, a computer scientist with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence.

 

Molter said the industry faced a similar problem in the 1960s. During that decade, programmers often used only one digit to indicate dates. When 1970 came around, computers saw only the 0 and assumed it was 1960 all over again. Programmers had to find the systems affected, make the changes, then test them. In 1970, there weren't that many computers, and few computers "talked" to each other. Today, there are millions of computers, and most speak to each other. Finding the code that needs to be changed and making and testing the changes will be an enormous job.

 

"Many people are in denial about this or believe we'll find a 'silver bullet,'" Molter said. "Denial doesn’t work. There's a real problem here; automated tools will help, but there will be no tool that will solve every problem. Networks really add to the complexity of this. Your system may be safe, but another system you deal with may have the problem. This could affect your data."

 

Some systems have already crashed because of the date problem, officials said. Examples are those dealing with long-range inventories.

 

"Often the systems will continue to run, but just do the wrong calculations," Molter said. "This is like a virus set to go off in the year 2000. Many physical security access systems are set to date input, and you may not even be able to get into your office. Crazy stuff is going to happen if we don’t do something."

 

Computers run the world’s banking systems. They are at the heart of the communications industry. The New York Stock Exchange couldn’t function without computers. The "Year 2000 Problem" affects these and other vital systems.

 

One example of a bizarre computer glitch is making a simple telephone call: Imagine calling a friend to wish him Happy New Year at 11:59 p.m. Dec. 31, 1999. You watch the ball drop in New York's Times Square on the television and hang up at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, 2000. If the year 2000 problem isn’t corrected or it’s corrected imperfectly, you could receive a telephone bill listing that call as lasting 52.56 million minutes -- 100 years.

 

The problem affects older programs most. In many cases, computer technicians simply didn’t expect programs to still be in use around the year 2000. In recent years, programmers have understood the problem, and DoD information management contracts, for instance, have begun stipulating that any new computer software or systems must handle the year 2000 problem.

 

In some cases, the solution will be to take older software off the market sooner than anticipated. "You can expect a number of firms to go out of business because of this problem," Molter said. "They won't be able to come up with the money to pay for the changes that must be made in the software."

 

It is going to be expensive, and businesses and government are going to have to pay big bucks and get no added benefit from the money. "The money will be spent to allow your system to continue as it's presently operating," Molter said. "That bothers a lot of people."

 

The money will probably come from existing budgets, but there are some jurisdictions using creative approaches. Nebraska is considering adding a tax to cigarettes to pay for the fix in that state.

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